"As a linebacker, you like to see them picking defensive linemen," said Hawk. "Obviously, they help us as linebackers. We're definitely happy with the D-line we have, they do an unbelievable job. D-line is a position where there is usually a lot of rotation going on and you need guys in there that are fresh. Whenever we help the defense, I'm all for it."
With Harrell in the mix, whether he starts right away or not, a strong defensive line in front of Hawk, middle linebacker Nick Barnett and strong-side linebacker Brady Poppinga should enable the group to make more big plays. Like the rest of Green Bay's defense, the linebackers improved as the season progressed last season and should be better from the get-go with a season of experience together.
"The thing about that group is they can run, and the understanding of the defense is, we're way ahead of where we were at this time last year," said coach Mike McCarthy. "I've been impressed with the way the older guys have really taken their game to another level. It's very evident when A.J. and Nick and Brady are in there, but I think it really helps the younger guys, because they've set the standard. So as a group, I think we're way ahead of where we were at this time last year. I really like the way the young guys have acclimated themselves and we just need to get Abdul (Hodge) back, and then I think it will be a very healthy group as far as competition comes in training camp."
Hawk was inserted immediately at weak-side linebacker after the Packers selected him fifth overall in the NFL draft. He led the team with 155 tackles, second-most ever recorded by a Packers rookie, and also finished with 3 ½ sacks, two interceptions and nine passes defensed.
Barnett, who is entering his fifth straight season as a starter, was second on the team with 141 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and nine passes defensed.
Though Poppinga struggled in pass coverage early on last season, he adjusted to his role, finishing seventh on the team with 76 tackles, one sack and one interception.
While the starters are set for 2007, the backup positions are all up for grabs. Middle linebacker Abdul Hodge, who has starting potential, was out the entire off-season because of the knee injury that riddled him most of his rookie season. Fifth-year pro Tracy White is more useful as a special-teams ace. Rookies Desmond Bishop (sixth round) and Rory Johnson (undrafted) will compete for possibly one spot. Johnson, who flourished in his own right next to Patrick Willis at Mississippi last year, has to clean up his off-field act after testing twice in college for marijuana use.
The Packers likely will keep six linebackers on their 53-man roster, and one or two on the eight-man practice squad. Here's a prediction on which six players will make the roster at the end of August:
1. Nick Barnett, MLB
2. A.J. Hawk, WLB
3. Brady Poppinga, SLB
4. Abdul Hodge, MLB
5. Desmond Bishop, MLB/SLB
6. Tracy White, WLB
Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.