Leader of the Pack
Desmond Bishop: It took Bishop three seasons to break into the starting lineup. He's made up for lost time, with 263 tackles, eight sacks, one interception and four forced fumbles while starting 25 games over the last two seasons.
Last season, he was second among NFL inside/middle linebackers with five sacks, and he led or tied for the team lead in tackles in nine of his 13 games. Among the 37 inside/middle linebackers who played at least half of their teams' snaps, Bishop ranked fourth in tackling efficiency (number of attempted tackles per missed tackle) and 11th in run stop percentage (28 stops in 259 running plays, or 10.8 percent), according to ProFootballFocus.com.
With that all-around skill-set, he's an every-down player, regardless of what package is on the field.
"If he maxes out his potential, talent and skill set, he's as good as any linebacker in the league," inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. "He can cover, he can blitz and he can stuff the run."
D.J. Smith: A sixth-round pick last year, Smith spent his rookie season laboring on special teams until Bishop exited the Nov. 24 game at Detroit with an injured calf. On Smith's first play, he shed a blocker and dropped the running back at the line of scrimmage.
That would be the first of 37 tackles in the three-and-three-quarters games that Smith played in place of Bishop. He had an interception against Oakland and 11 tackles on special teams.
Smith was a tackling machine at Appalachian State, and there's no reason to doubt he wouldn't be a tackling machine if handed a prominent role on defense.
"You've got to be excited about him," Moss said. "He came in last year without an offseason, and by the end of the year had a substantial grasp of this defense to where we obviously felt comfortable putting him in. This offseason, nothing had detracted from that. He's in a tough position where he has guys in front of him that have stripes. He will have to continue to work hard and do the things that we're asking him to do, and if he wants to play more, he's going to have to take somebody's job. It's as simple as that."
A.J. Hawk: The fifth pick of the 2006 draft is a sleeper?
First, the good: In six seasons, Hawk has recorded 100-plus tackles five times and averaged 121.7. He's played in 94 of a possible 96 games, with the two exceptions coming last year, when he was sidelined by a calf injury.
Second, the bad news. Ask one of the Packers' coaches about Hawk and this is the inevitable answer. "You cannot measure A.J. and what he brings to this team in some of the intangibles," Moss said. "From that standpoint, he's as good as anybody as far as being a leader, the players believing in him and really having a good grasp of what we're trying to do defensively."
No mention of Hawk being "as good as anybody" once the ball is snapped. Last season, Hawk wasn't involved in any turnover-producing plays and ranked next-to-last in run stop percentage (5.7 percent, with 17 snaps in 300 running plays) among inside/middle linebackers. He can't cover, which forced the coaches to put Bishop into some tough situations.
Still, Hawk has answered the challenge before. In 2010, he didn't play a single snap of defense in Week 1 and was a part-time player until Nick Barnett's season-ending injury put Hawk permanently back on the field. Green Bay, of course, finished second in scoring defense and won the Super Bowl, with Hawk tallying three interceptions and six games of 10-plus tackles. Maybe a sleeker Hawk bounces back again when the doubters are calling for his head.
On the bubble
Robert Francois: Francois, with two interceptions and a forced fumble, was involved in as many turnover-producing plays as the rest of the inside linebacker corps combined. Still, he might be the odd man out of what's an eyeballs-deep position group. Hawk, Bishop and Smith seem like locks, and the Packers didn't give up three draft picks to move up in the fifth round to grab North Carolina State's impressive Terrell Manning just so they could release him. Plus, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore were added to the mix.
0: Hawk hasn't forced a fumble in 59 starts over the last four seasons. Compare that to Bishop, who has forced seven fumbles in 25 starts over the last four seasons.
Twelve months ago, this was the Packers' most suspect position. Hawk and Bishop were the obvious starters, but there was no depth. The 5-foot-11 Smith had 525 tackles in college but that was against second- and third-tier competition. Francois, who had been moved over from outside linebacker, was released three times in 2010 alone. K.C. Asiodu? Cardia Jackson? Elijah Joseph?
It's a different story entering this training camp. Smith looks like a potential starter. Manning was a do-it-all linebacker in college who seems like a great fit for the scheme. Francois, Jones and Lattimore can play inside and outside. Last season, the Packers kept four inside linebackers. This year, they could keep five or six because of the versatility.
"The more guys can do, the more value they have," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "That's one of the things with a guy like Brad Jones in there, because Brad's a good special teams player, he's played outside for us a lot. Now, if he can get ready to play inside so he can play inside-outside-special teams, that really increases your value. With injuries and those type of things, you're deciding how many linebackers to go with as opposed to defensive linemen, how much can they do, what's their value on special teams, all those things factor in."
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.