Probable backups: Abdul Hodge (MLB), Roy Manning (OLB), Brady Poppinga (OLB)
Longshots: Kurt Campbell (OLB), Tim Goodwell (MLB), Byron Santiago (MLB), Kevin Schimmelmann (OLB), Tracy White (OLB)
The position that perhaps needed the most attention this off-season by Ted Thompson may finally have some playmakers. The Packers general manager revamped the linebacker corp by injecting youth in the form of two draft picks and a veteran free agent.
Aside from veteran middle linebacker Nick Barnett, the Packers have lacked players who have the ability to make game-turning plays in recent seasons. So, Thompson, a former linebacker with the Houston Oilers, showed the door to veterans Na'il Diggs and Robert Thomas this off-season and welcomed A.J. Hawk, Abdul Hodge and Ben Taylor.
In Bob Sanders' defense, the linebackers are counted on to be quick, rush to the ball and make plays. Hawk, taken fifth overall in the draft this season by the Packers, will be expected to step right in and contribute like he did at Ohio State. Taylor, entering his fifth season, also should be an improvement at the outside position. Barnett is expected to remain in the middle this season, or at least until Hodge, taken in the third round (67th overall) by the Packers this year, is ready to start in the middle. If/when Hodge is promoted, Barnett could be in position to thrive at the strong-side position in place of Taylor.
Last year, Green Bay's starting linebacker trio of Barnett, Diggs and Thomas finished with just one quarterback sack and two interceptions. Of course, it didn't help that Diggs and Thomas missed a combined 13 games because of injuries. The departed Paris Lenon (Detroit Lions), stepped in and started for either Thomas or Diggs, and rookie Roy Manning also had a pair of starts. But one of the reasons Green Bay's run defense (ranked 23rd overall) suffered is because the linebackers often were blocked out of plays.
The Packers probably will keep six linebackers on the roster. Barnett, Hawk, Taylor, Hodge and Manning are locks to make the team. Brady Poppinga, who is coming off an ACL injury that he sustained last December, may not be ready to play by the start of the season. If not, look for him to be placed on the physically unable to perform list, which will prevent him from playing the first six weeks of the season. If the Packers place Poppinga on the PUP, it will leave the door cracked open for Kurt Campbell, who spent all of his rookie season on injured reserve with a torn ACL that he sustained last Aug. 1 in practice. Poppinga, however, says he will be ready to practice, if the team allows him, when training camp opens on July 28.
Barnett is coming off his best season as a pro. The former first round pick of Green Bay (2003) started all 16 games at middle linebacker and set a single-season team record with 194 tackles, breaking Mike Douglass' 1981 record of 180. Barnett's tackle total was third-best in the NFL last year to Cleveland's Andra Davis (199) and Tampa Bay's Shelton Quarles (196).
Hawk participated in the team's post-draft mini-camp but was forced to miss the May 19-21 mini-camp and about half of the OTA practices because school was still in session at Ohio State. Hawk has been playing the weak-side position, which is where he will stay throughout training camp and into the season. "I think the position of ‘Will' plays to his attributes physically," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. Look for Barnett and Hawk to remain on the field while the team is in its ‘nickel' passing defense (five defensive backs). Barnett probably will stay on the field when the Packers are in the ‘dime' defense (six defensive backs).
Taylor, a fourth-round draft choice by the Browns in 2002, started all 16 games at weak-side linebacker in Cleveland's 3-4 scheme last year. He turned down an offer from the Browns this off-season for an opportunity to play in Sanders' defense. The 6-foot-2, 238-pound Taylor feels that he'll be able to make more plays in Green Bay's defense, providing he stays healthy. He sustained a hamstring injury as a rookie and missed nine games. The following year, back and elbow injuries caused him to miss three games. He was out 13 games in 2004 with a torn chest muscle. Last year, Taylor had 139 tackles and was a big contributor on special teams.
Manning and Hodge are expected to be in the mix on game days as well, beginning with special teams.
Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.