Grading on a Salary Cap Curve: Inside LB’s

In Part 8 of our series, we grade the performance of a woeful unit that is due an extreme makeover. Between the presumed releases of A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, the Packers could put a pretty good dent in Randall Cobb's signing bonus. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY)

We’re taking a different spin on everyone’s favorite end-of-season exercise — player grades — by grading on a curve. Building a roster means building around the restraints of the salary cap, so our grades are based relative to the players’ salary-cap worth on the roster.

Part 8 of our “Grading on a Salary Cap Curve” series continues with the inside linebackers. Salary cap figures are from a source with access to NFLPA salary data. Stats are regular season only unless noted. Sacks, tackles and quarterback hits are from the coaches’ tally. (Note: Pro Football Focus has a stat called “run stops,” which is used frequently here. It measures impact tackles and mirrors the Packers’ win/loss grading system. A run stop is defined as a solo tackle that results in an offensive failure: a first-and-10 tackle that holds the play to 3 yards or less, a second-down tackle that holds the play to less than half of the required yardage and any third-down tackle that prevents a first down.)

A.J. Hawk

2014 cap number: $5,100,000.

2014 recap: For Hawk, the franchise’s career leader in tackles, the end appears near. In a never-ending quest to gain a half-step in a league in which the skill-position players on offense seem to always gain a full step, Hawk is no longer big enough or fast enough. He finished third on the team with 93 tackles — down from 153 in 2013 — but those plays had little impact. Of 59 inside/middle linebackers who played 25 percent of their team’s run-defense snaps, Hawk finished 57th in PFF’s run-stop percentage (17 stops, 365 snaps for 4.7 percent). It was a near replay of 2013, when Hawk finished 54th out of 56 (21 stops, 406 run snaps, 5.2 percent). Compare those figures to 2012, when Hawk was at least an excellent run defender (No. 6 with 43 stops in 363 run snaps for 11.8 percent). After tallying eight sacks in 2012 and 2013, he had only a half-sack in 2014. He didn’t have a hand in a takeaway, either. There are two lasting memories of Hawk’s season. At Minnesota, Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph pulled away from Hawk as if Hawk were running with concrete in his shoes. The second was the fake punt in the NFC Championship Game. Always a step ahead mentally, Hawk ran toward Seattle punter Jon Ryan, only to let Garry Gilliam catch a game-changing touchdown pass. It’s a shame for a player who too often went underappreciated just because he was the fifth overall pick of the 2006 draft — a draft position in which good isn’t good enough for many fans. In 2015, his cap number is scheduled to be $5.1 million. If (when?) the Packers release him, they’ll save $3.5 million against the cap.

Season grade: F.

Sam Barrington

2014 cap number: $507,250.

2014 recap: The Packers’ defensive turnaround corresponded with Clay Matthews’ insertion into the lineup at inside linebacker following the bye. Matthews started three games alongside Hawk before Hawk was benched in favor of Barrington for the Week 13 game against New England. Barrington started the final five regular-season games (and both playoff games) and almost certainly will be running with the No. 1 defense when the 2015 season kicks off. Even while starting only seven regular-season games, Barrington finished seventh on the team with 68 tackles. He wasn’t much better than Hawk in run stops (5.8 percent with 10 in 172 run snaps) but look at the tackle rates: Barrington, one every 5.35 snaps; Hawk, one every 9.16. He showed promise as a blitzer with four quarterback hits (vs. Hawk’s three), by the coaches’ count, and missed only three tackles. The Packers allowed 0.83 yards per carry less with Barrington on the field than when he was on the sideline. Barrington, a seventh-round pick in 2013 who missed the second half of his rookie season with a hamstring injury and didn’t play a single snap on defense, looks like part of the solution. Just call him Desmond Bishop 2.0 because, like Bishop, Barrington is a humble, intelligent and hard-hitting defender. If he improves in the passing game, the Packers will have a long-term asset. Given the state of the depth chart, the Packers need him to be a legit starter.

Season grade: C-plus.

Brad Jones

2014 cap number: $3,925,000.

2014 recap: GM Ted Thompson hasn’t signed many bad contracts. This, however, was a head-scratcher from the get-go. A three-year, $11.175 million deal for a player with 10 starts — albeit 10 quality starts — at inside linebacker in 2012? After a total of 200 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles in 22 starts in 2012 and 2013, Jones had just 13 tackles this season. He started the opener at Seattle — where he was guilty of two killer penalties — missed the next three with a quad injury and played more than 15 snaps in only three games the rest of the season. Despite barely playing for large chunks of the season, he was flagged five times — more than Barrington (three), Matthews (one) and Hawk (zero) combined. He tackled poorly for the second consecutive year, as well. His cap number rises to $4.75 million in 2015. The Packers would save $3.75 million against the cap by cutting him. Between Hawk and Cobb, the Packers could fund a good percentage of Randall Cobb’s signing bonus.

Season grade: F.

Jamari Lattimore

2014 cap number: $1,431,000.

2014 recap: The Packers gave Lattimore a restricted free agent tender last offseason, meaning they were on the hook for $1.431 million. Surely, that meant they considered Lattimore a viable option on defense. He played in 11 games and started five times (Weeks 2 through 6), finishing with 43 tackles and an interception. When they came out of the bye, Matthews started at inside linebacker and Lattimore was a healthy inactive. His season ended with an ankle injury against New England in Week 13. He averaged a tackle every 6.63 snaps, finished 53rd in run-stop percentage (eight stops in 131 snaps for 6.1 percent), blitzed well and tackled poorly. He’s fast, active and an impact hitter but, after three seasons at inside linebacker, it’s pretty clear the whole is never going to equal the sum of the parts. He probably won’t return as an unrestricted free agent.

Season grade: F.

Carl Bradford

2014 cap number: $527,325.

2014 recap: Here was the decision for the Packers: Play Bradford at outside linebacker, let him attack off the edge and hope he could find a way to get to the quarterback after registering 20 sacks in his final two seasons at Arizona State, or go by his measurables and figure his best position would be inside linebacker. The Packers put him at outside linebacker, where he flailed away as if he were trying to break through a brick wall with a feather duster. Late in camp, he was moved inside. Will he make it? Who knows, but he didn’t dominate quality Pac-12 competition because he lacked talent.

Season grade: F.

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.


Packer Report Top Stories