Solid Play Improves Depth at Inside 'Backer

A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop are quality starters but who will back them up after an offseason position shakeup? The candidates are untested, to be sure, but they've performed well during training camp and the preseason.

The Green Bay Packers entered training with precarious depth at inside linebacker behind starters A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop. And while that's still true, the situation might not be as grave as it appeared a month ago.

"Yeah, I feel better, yes. I do," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said after Wednesday's practice, the final tune-up before Friday night's preseason game at Indianapolis. "From what I've seen. I think D.J. Smith's going to do nothing but get better, and I think Rob (Francois) been pretty solid there for us through the preseason."

A third player jumped into the fray on Wednesday in Cardia Jackson, who had as productive a practice as any inside linebacker has had during training camp.

During a red-zone drill, Jackson intercepted Aaron Rodgers. During a third-down period, Jackson deflected a pass, though it ricocheted into the hands of Diondre Borel for a completion. Later, a blitzing Jackson deflected a pass and caught it while tumbling to the ground for another interception. He also stopped Ryan Grant in the backfield.

"The first (interception), I knew what I had to do and I saw James Jones run across," Jackson said. "I pretty much baited A-Rod. I turned my back to him and flipped my head back across real fast. He threw the ball and it was there and I made a play. (On the second interception), I was blitzing and the offensive line kind of held me up so I got my hand up in the air and he threw the ball and, voila, it landed in my hands."

Jackson (6-1, 236) led the Sun Belt Conference in tackles as a senior in 2009, so he has a nose for the ball.

"Oh, yeah. I smell it. Even if I was a blind man, I could smell it," he said with a big smile.

An undrafted free agent in 2010, he spent training camp with the Rams but was released among their final cuts. He was out of the league until the Packers signed him to their practice squad on Dec. 29. He was re-signed to a futures contract after the season.

"I felt like I was NFL-caliber and obviously Green Bay did, also, so they called me in right after Christmas," Jackson said. "That was a big opportunity, a big deal to come in and help the champs win a ring."

Jackson's big day might get him into contention for a roster spot. Throughout camp, Francois and sixth-round pick Smith have been the No. 2 tandem at inside linebacker. Francois started last year's game against Miami at outside linebacker and played much of the second half of the NFC Championship Game at outside backer, so his versatility is a major asset considering the Packers lost Frank Zombo for a significant period last week. Smith, who piled up 100-plus tackles in all four seasons at Appalachian State, was a No. 1 on all four core special teams units for the past several days.

Francois, who inside linebackers coach Winston Moss called a "thumper," and Smith, who Moss compared to former NFL great London Fletcher, are tied for third on the team with seven tackles in two preseason games.

"I think they've all had solid camps," Moss said. "Robert's been in my meeting room before. I enjoy Robert. I think he's an extremely thorough and impressive guy as far as having command in front of the huddle and doing a good job at adjustments. He's graded out well. Overall, he does what he's supposed to do — he doesn't make a lot of plays, but he will be where he's supposed to be.

"Smith has been impressive as a young guy coming in with no offseason. He's shown a real knack for being able to be a quick study, to be very athletic. He's flashed a lot. If he continues to improve and stay healthy, he's got a chance."

The knock on Smith is his height — or lack thereof. He's 5-foot-11, though Moss said his instincts and approach to the game carry more weight in his evaluations.

"Maybe the best inside linebacker I was ever with was about his size – Sam Mills," Capers said. "I was with Sam for 12 years at three different places, and he made five Pro Bowls. And he's not as tall as D.J."

Whoever emerges, it'll be a vastly different position group than for last year's season opener. The Packers broke camp with Nick Barnett and Hawk as starters, with Bishop and Brandon Chillar in reserve. It was the Packers' best position group.

"It's different not having Nick in the room. Nick was a piece of work. So, it's a quiet room this year. That's a relief," Moss said with a laugh.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.


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