Position analysis: Defense, Special Teams

The 2003 season has ended and the Green Bay Packers are in the planning stages of bolstering their team for 2004. As the Packers prepare to attend next week's NFL Combine in Indianapolis, here is breakdown of the 2003 Green Bay Packers defense, by position, and special teams:<p>

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters – LE Aaron Kampman, NT Grady Jackson, 3T Cletidus Hunt, RE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Backups – LE-3T Chukie Nwokorie, 3T-NT Larry Smith, NT Gilbert Brown, RE Jamal Reynolds, NT Rod Walker, NT James Lee, LE Joe Johnson, 3T Kenny Peterson.

Acquired on waivers Nov. 3, Jackson ended up being the best player on defense during his 10-game stint. Then he was re-signed through the '05 season. Played fairly hard for the Packers and showed a rare combination of power and speed off the ball. Hunt played 80.5% of the downs and had a respectable season. "KGB" played 87% of the downs and didn't get a lot done. He had 10 sacks, but he didn't do much against the top left tackles (Walter Jones twice, Orlando Pace and Willie Roaf). Plus, he was weak against the run. Kampman replaced Johnson as the starter in Week 7 and was an upgrade. Kampman isn't a great talent but he's smart, has a nose for the ball and never stops trying to improve. Johnson is coming off a blown thigh and would have to reduce his base salary from $4 million to the minimum probably to even have a chance to play in 2004.

Nwokorie is a hustler and worth a return as the No. 6 to No. 8 in the rotation. Smith, signed as a free agent in mid-October, played better in Green Bay than he did in four years for the Jaguars. He's a linear inside player but doesn't get buckled at the point and has some inside rush quickness. Brown kept getting hurt, can't practice and should retire. He's done. Walker is coming off shoulder and knee surgeries but probably will get a final shot. Reynolds did absolutely nothing in limited playing time and isn't expected back. Lee got hurt the first day of practice and spent the year on injured reserve, but the coaches say he worked hard and will have a long look to be Jackson's understudy. A third-round pick, Peterson didn't make a play all year.

LINEBACKERS: Starters – SLB Hannibal Navies, MLB Nick Barnett, WLB Na'il Diggs. Backups – MLB Torrance Marshall, WLB Marcus Wilkins, SLB Paris Lenon.

The three starters all played about the same. Give them a C-plus grade if you're passing out marks. Barnett played 17 of 18 games, and in those games played virtually every snap. He led the team in tackles with 134 but too many of them were downfield and not enough in the hole. He's too small to play the middle but Diggs is too tall for the middle so Barnett sucked it up, didn't make any excuses and did OK. Barnett runs well and works hard. He had too many lapses in coverage. Diggs lost the dime job to Barnett after the first week because he couldn't cover backs man to man. Diggs gives this defense some much-needed attitude and ruggedness. It was his first year moving from the strong side and he'll be better in 2004. Navies stayed healthy for the first time in his career and gave ground grudgingly at the point. He covers adequately and offered some juice as a blitzer. All in all, it was a good signing.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters – LCB Mike McKenzie, RCB Al Harris, SS Marques Anderson, FS Darren Sharper. Backups – S Antuan Edwards, CB Michael Hawthorne, CB Bhawoh Jue, CB Chris Johnson, CB James Whitley, CB Derek Combs, S Curtis Fuller, CB Erwin Swiney, S Bryant Westbrook.

McKenzie and Sharper easily were the best performers on a group that didn't perform as well as last year. McKenzie isn't quite at the "shutdown corner" level because he lacks blazing speed and has unreliable hands. However, he plays the man very well, is a rugged face-up tackler and loves to compete against Randy Moss or anyone else. Harris, the other corner, is a pure bump player who struggles playing off. He's an ordinary tackler with below ordinary speed. He better get his hands on a wide receiver or he's in trouble. Maybe the Packers can get another year out of him as a starter. Sharper didn't play quite as well as he has in the past. Three of his five interceptions came on Hail Marys. Still, he's a tremendous athlete and the brains of the secondary. Edwards blew out a hamstring on Thanksgiving, went on injured reserve and was replaced by Anderson. Edwards is the better of the two players but neither one is the answer. Look for Edwards to leave as an unrestricted free agent. Anderson isn't a bad tackler in the hole but he led the team in number of missed tackles for the second year in a row and lacks both range and instinct in coverage. The Packers cannot enter another season with him as a starter. Hawthorne came from New Orleans in September and did a respectable job as the dime back. He's tall, ran well enough, didn't miss many tackles and was on his best behavior. Jue was burned for game-losing touchdown passes against the Chiefs and Eagles but still has a chance because of his size and speed. Johnson damaged knee cartilage late in August and went on injured reserve. If his knee checks out, and there is some concern that it won't, he has phenomenal speed and good size and could be a player. Whitley made a name for himself on special teams in the final month. Combs is fast fast but also is raw. Fuller and Swiney are just guys. Westbrook is coming off his second blown Achilles' in four years and probably won't be back.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- K Ryan Longwell, P Josh Bidwell, PR Antonio Chatman, KR Najeh Davenport, H Doug Pederson, LS Rob Davis.

Longwell ranked fourth in the NFL in field goal percentage but his kickoffs were below average once again. Bidwell was a middle-of-the-pack punter. He's headed for unrestricted free agency and, if he gets a good offer, the Packers will let him go. Chatman never fumbled once all season but offered little on returns and should be replaced. Davenport didn't get the KO return job until Week 10 and then was hell on wheels. Pederson and Davis were good. The cover units were average.


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