Unit by unit: Linebackers

Packers need help at the outside positions

Starters - SLB Na'il Diggs, MLB Nick Barnett, WLB Robert Thomas
Backups - SLB Brady Poppinga, WLB Paris Lenon, WLB/SLB Roy Manning, WLB/SLB John Leake, WLB/SLB Atari Bigby, WLB Kurt Campbell.

Green Bay's linebackers improved in 2005, but injuries to a pair of starters has left this position as a major area of need this off-season. The Packers possibly may begin the upcoming NFL draft by selecting top-rated collegiate linebacker A.J. Hawk instead of a defensive end. If the Packers plan to improve their sagging run defense next year, they'll have to get better performances out of the linebacker corp.

Middle linebacker Nick Barnett was the sole bright spot of this group last year. He finished with a team-record 194 tackles. He also had one sack and one interception, but he often got caught over-pursuing running backs and had a team-high 20 missed tackles. If the Packers sign a free agent, or draft a linebacker more suited for the middle, Barnett probably would be a better fit at the strong-side position.

Injuries to outside linebacker Na'il Diggs during the preseason and early in the season, plus an injury to outside linebacker Robert Thomas late in the season, crippled the linebackers and their ability to make big plays.

Diggs suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in one knee during an early training camp practice. Then, after missing the first two regular season games, he incurred the same injury to the other knee in the Week 4 loss at Carolina, costing him five more games. The amount of time he missed dropped him out of favor with first-year coordinator Jim Bates. Depending on the assessment of the new staff, the possibility exists Diggs will be released - he's due a $600,000 roster bonus in March and would have the team's fourth-highest salary-cap number at nearly $4 million.

Thomas was acquired in a preseason trade with St. Louis, but there is no guarantee that he will be back after the weak-side starter injured his quadriceps tendon late in the season. Thomas missed the final six games, but was not that effective early in the season when he was healthy. Thomas finished 10th on the team in tackles with 51 and made his first career interception Nov. 6 against Pittsburgh.

Paris Lenon took advantage of the absence of Diggs and Thomas to start a career-high 12 games, including seven at the strong-side position. Lenon is perhaps the most versative of Green Bay's linebackers, but will never be regarded as a starter on a regular basis because he doesn't make any big plays. He had one-and-a-half sacks and no interceptions last year. Lenon is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, and his future in Green Bay is uncertain.

Rookie Brady Poppinga, a fourth-round pick, worked his way into the starting lineup by Week 14, but suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the same game. Because of the nature of his injury, he may miss the early part of the 2006 season. Poppinga caught the coaches' attention by leading special teams in tackles and playing well in roles with the passing defense earlier in the season.

Roy Manning, an undrafted rookie, jumped out early in the season and started two games on the strong side but wasn't productive. He had 20 tackles and no interceptions or sacks.

John Leake was a late-season addition who helped on special teams in the final three games.

Atari Bigby was elevated to the 53-man roster for the final two weeks after spending a long stint on the practice squad at linebacker, though he projects to be a safety.


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