Returning will be starters A.J. Hawk, with a less-costly contract, and Desmond Bishop, with a healthy hamstring. Promising D.J. Smith, who replaced Bishop, sustained a torn ACL in Week 6 and is on the mend. The team re-signed Brad Jones, who replaced Smith, and Robert Francois. Plus, 2012 fifth-round pick Terrell Manning is expected to compete for playing time after what was essentially a redshirt season.
Nonetheless, the Packers simply must do better than last season, when the combinations of Hawk and Smith and Hawk and Jones produced a bunch of tackles but few plays of note.
Among them are Iowa State's A.J. Klein, a native of Kimberly, Wis., who is squarely on the Packers' radar, sources have told Packer Report.
"Klein is a guy I think will end up starting and I'm pretty positive he comes off somewhere in that third round," a scout told Packer Report recently.
Another scout compared him to Zach Thomas and said getting him in the fourth round would be a "steal."
Klein was a unanimous first-team all-Big 12 selection and an honorable mention for Defensive Player of the Year, an award he won as a junior. The tackling machine piled up 117 stops in 2012 and finished his career with 368 after three consecutive seasons of at least 111 tackles. Plus, he tied the NCAA record for a linebacker by taking four of his five career interceptions back for touchdowns.
It's an impressive career for a player who was a 210-pound linebacker in high school and three-star recruit. Klein didn't receive any other offers from a power conference and just three other offers in all (Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and Wyoming).
"I became a better player every year," Klein said at the Combine. "You can see that on film. You can go back and watch tape from my freshman year — don't, because it's bad. Even Coach Wally (longtime defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Wally Burnham) would bring up game tape from our sophomore year just to kind of game plan for stuff this year with me and Jake (Knott, another draftable inside linebacker). Watching it, we looked at each other like, 'Holy crap, that was us.' We were that bad. But that's the thing: We're highly critical of ourselves, which is a good problem to have. I've seen improvement and you can see it on game tape, for sure."
Klein (6-1, 250) showed his athleticism at the Scouting Combine, where he ran a 4.66 in the 40-yard dash. At his recent pro day, which was attended by two Packers scouts, he had a 33-inch vertical jump and 24 reps on the 225-pound bench press.
He's also a cerebral player capable of running a defense. He pointed to his interception and 78-yard touchdown return against Missouri in 2011 as a byproduct of knowing what the Tigers were going to run out of a specific formation on a third-and-intermediate situation. Klein, who majored in kinesiology, was a three-time selection to the Big 12's all-academic team and a candidate for the Senior CLASS Award.
"If you don't put in the extra time in the film room — if you don't put in extra work generally on the field to be a better tackler or make reads better — you're just not going to be a better player overall," Klein said. "Obviously, a direct correlation is as much time as you put in is as much as you're going to get out. I think it's shown in my play on the field."
Coming from such humble roots and going unrecruited by his home-state Badgers, Klein is hungry to prove he belongs.
"This is really a big dream, hope. You can put it however you want it," he said. "But the main goal was to get here and to mainly succeed as a football player — not necessarily just make it here, but be successful in college. Obviously, be recognized and have the opportunity to come here and showcase my talents to NFL scouts. It's kind of a whirlwind of emotions kind of thing, but being here and have it come up really fast. I mean four years comes up faster than you think. To be sitting here and in this spot, it's really surreal."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.