We continue our training camp positional series with the inside linebackers.
Starters: Clay Matthews, Sam Barrington. Matthews tallied 69 tackles, including 11 sacks. The bulk of that production came during the second half of the season, when he was moved into a part-time role at inside linebacker. He had 27 tackles and 2.5 sacks in the first eight games vs. 42 tackles and 8.5 sacks in the final eight games. Matthews received a lot of the credit for Green Bay’s defensive revival — and rightfully so — but Barrington made a big impact, as well. He’s the most physical inside linebacker the Packers have had since Desmond Bishop in 2010, which he demonstrated right out of the gate against New England. He piled up 44 tackles while starting the final five games.
Top backup: Jake Ryan. lnside linebacker was thought to be Green Bay’s No. 1 position of need. Apparently, not in the mind of Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who bypassed Clemson’s Stephone Anthony in the first round and waited until the fourth round to get Michigan’s Ryan. He was productive, with 112 tackles as a senior. He was tough. Ryan tore his ACL during spring practice in March 2013. On Oct. 12 — just six-and-a-half months later — he was back on the field against Penn State. And he’s athletic. At 6-foot-2 3/8 and 240 pounds at the Scouting Combine, Ryan ran his 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds. Our top 10 inside linebacker prospects averaged 4.68.
Contenders: Joe Thomas, Nate Palmer, Carl Bradford, Tavarus Dantzler, Josh Francis. Thomas, Palmer and Bradford had lost seasons. Thomas, an undersized and undrafted free agent out of South Carolina State, made an early push for a roster spot until sustaining a knee injury. Palmer and Bradford were moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker late in training camp. Palmer wound up on injured reserve with a knee injury and Bradford simply wasn’t good enough to get on the field, despite spending the entire season on the active roster. Francis arrived in Green Bay after spending the spring playing for Wichita Falls in the indoor league. His senior year at West Virginia was in 2012. Dantzler went undrafted out of Bethune-Cookman. At 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, he’s got excellent size. He had 80 tackles and forced three fumbles as a senior.
From weakness to strength?: From July 2014 to July 2015, this is clearly the most-improved position group on the team.
To start last season, the Packers’ top inside linebackers were A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, with Jamari Lattimore the first off the bench. None of those three remain with the team. Barrington played all of three snaps on defense at Minnesota in Week 12 before being turned loose in the marquee showdown vs. New England a week later. Barrington and Matthews formed a terrific tandem, and they should only get better as they gel together. In the final five regular-season games as the starting tandem, Green Bay yielded only 3.71 yards per carry.
With the improvement, Green Bay yielded 4.3 yards per carry. That’s not great but it was still its best rate since 2009. With a full season of Matthews and Barrington, the run defense should be even better. That, in turn, will allow Dom Capers to turn things loose on defense.
Is Matthews at home inside?: What Matthews did during the second half of the season can’t be overstated. Over the final eight games, Green Bay’s run defense went from dreadful to a strength. The Packers allowed just 3.60 yards per carry during that span. Somehow, despite fewer opportunities to attack the quarterback, he piled up 8.5 of his 11 sacks after the move. Offenses seemed to have a hard time targeting him, especially when he went from inside linebacker to outside linebacker just before the snap.
“Wait until you see him play nose guard, that’s going to be really cool,” joked coach Mike McCarthy.
For now, expect Matthews to be used in the same fashion as he was during the second half of last season — at inside linebacker on first-and-10 and other run situations and at outside linebacker on passing downs.
“Especially when you look at the way we’ve started the years out here at 1-2, 2-2, I think it’s important that we start strong,” Matthews said. “We finished strong. We were playing our best defense and might have had our best defensive game, aside from the last couple minutes, against Seattle. I think it’s important for me to be able to switch around and play both positions, whether that be switching inside and going back outside and rushing the passer, and I need to make sure I know the nuances. Last year was kind of a patchwork as far coming in there. Now that I’m actually learning why I’m doing certain things, it’s making the transition a lot easier.”
Is Barrington the real deal?: Linebackers coach Winston Moss spoke with guarded optimism but defensive lineman Mike Daniels was all-in on the intelligent, no-nonsense linebacker. While Barrington deflected the credit last season and again during the offseason practices, Daniels said Barrington’s ability to set a physical tone — like he did on the first series against New England by stuffing Shane Vereen and LaGarrette Blount on second and third down — was a key to Green Bay’s turnaround.
“I like what he’s done so far and I like what he’s doing,” Daniels said. “I will say this about his character – Sam is a guy who takes this seriously. Things don’t go right, it bothers him. He’s going to hold himself and his teammates accountable. To have a guy like that, he will get vocal on top of doing the right things. I really appreciate him, I do. I’m glad he’s had his opportunity because I knew he was going to do something once he had it.”
What’s Ryan’s role?: For now, it’s special teams. However, depth concerns could force Ryan into the lineup. Perhaps someone like Thomas or Palmer will step to the forefront in training camp but, for now, inside linebacker is incredibly thin. An injury at outside linebacker could necessitate Matthews moving back outside on a full-time basis. Ryan might very well be first in line.
“Jake, just from looking at him, he’s physically impressive,” Matthews said. “He has a great college acumen as far as what he was able to accomplish. We’ll see what he can bring to the table but he looks good, he passes the eye test. He moves well out there, he’s fluid. I’m sure he’ll play a big role in this defense going forward.”
Who’s No. 4?: After jettisoning their top three players from last year’s season-opening depth chart, there is a lack of proven talent. Palmer started twice at outside linebacker as a rookie sixth-round pick in 2013 but was in a battle just to make the team when he was hurt in the preseason finale. Bradford was a huge disappointment in training camp — hence, why he was moved inside — and made the roster because of where he was drafted and the hope that the talent that helped him to 20 sacks and 40.5 tackles for losses during his final two seasons at Arizona State will come to the forefront. “He has an opportunity and he has to make the most of that opportunity,” Moss said. Thomas, who went down in the first preseason game, started strong but was a long way from the finish line. Special teams, obviously, will be the key. Thomas’ athleticism could give him the edge but, at this point, you might as well throw the names in a hat.
“I’m just a football player. I’m just a football player, man,” Thomas said. Put me anywhere on the field and I’m going to try to do my best to achieve.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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.