NFC North: Questions at LB

Our position-by-position breakdown of the NFC North continues with the linebackers, where the Packers aren't sure what they have as they transition to a 3-4 defense.

The Green Bay Packers entered last season with what many considered a linebacking corps just a slight notch below the Chicago Bears' group headlined by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.

With former first-round picks Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk joined by intense and improving Brady Poppinga and free agent addition Brandon Chillar, the Packers appeared set at linebacker.

But, when training camp opens in late July or early August, this group will be littered with question marks. A torn ACL suffered at midseason at Minnesota leaves Barnett's status for training camp in question, and there's no guarantee he'll ever return to a Pro Bowl level. Hawk went from solid to practically invisible, perhaps slowed by a groin injury that was much more severe than he let on. Poppinga's shortcomings in coverage were exploited routinely. Chillar was solid in coverage but only decent at best against the run. Between them, that quartet forced one fumble (Chillar vs. Detroit), recovered none, had no interceptions and just four sacks (three by Hawk, including two in Week 2 at Detroit).

The only playmaker of the group was intriguing Desmond Bishop, but his play was erratic, to be kind. He forced three fumbles, including a superb fourth-down stop and strip of Adrian Peterson at Minnesota after Barnett went down, but he was burned for two big plays in that narrow loss at the Metrodome and gave up on the game-turning reception in the last-minute loss to Houston.

Entering 2009, with the Packers' switch to a 3-4 defense, this group is in flux and in dire need of at least a couple players to emerge as playmakers. About the only certainty is Aaron Kampman will step in at outside linebacker. But will Barnett be healthy and effective? Will Hawk finally live up to being the fifth pick in the 2006 draft? At the outside linebacker opposite Kampman, will it be Chillar? Poppinga? Does Bishop get thrown in the mix? Will it be a draft pick or free agent acquisition?

Here is a breakdown of the NFC North's linebackers, based on last season.

Packers: Starters — SLB Brady Poppinga, MLB A.J. Hawk, WLB Brandon Chillar. Backups — Desmond Bishop, Spencer Havner, Danny Lansanah. Injured reserve — Nick Barnett.

The season-ending loss of Barnett to a midseason torn ACL wasn't overcome by the defense and the team as a whole, as it went 2-5 down the stretch. Barnett wasn't having a great season before suffering the injury, but he was the take-charge leader of the defense.

In Barnett's absence, Hawk moved inside from his starting weak-side spot, and the results were mixed. Hawk led the team with 121 tackles, but the 2006 first-round draft pick had perhaps the most underwhelming season among the Green Bay players. The zeroes stand out next to Hawk's name for interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.

Poppinga also didn't force a turnover, and given his liabilities in pass coverage, he could be the odd man out in the starting lineup next season. Chillar, the team's only notable acquisition last offseason, was effective defending the pass (nine breakups). The hard-hitting Bishop, who led the defense with three forced fumbles, is a starting-caliber player who can play on the outside or in the middle, but he must clean up his play in coverage.

Bears: Starters — WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Nick Roach. Backups — Hunter Hillenmeyer, Jamar Williams.

Briggs made his fourth straight Pro Bowl and is still in his prime; Urlacher is not. Now on the wrong side of 30, Urlacher isn't a special player anymore and probably never will be again, but he is still very good. Briggs has become the much better player, and he makes more big plays. Roach beat out long-time starter Hillenmeyer because he's faster and a better athlete, although not necessarily a more effective football player. Hillenmeyer is smart, and he's fundamentally and assignment sound and can play all three LB positions. So can Williams, but his star faded last season. Expected to be the heir apparent on the strong side, he was passed up by Roach, though he remains a good special-teams player.

Lions: Starters — WLB Ernie Sims, MLB Paris Lenon, SLB Ryan Nece. Backups — Jordon Dizon, Anthony Cannon, Darnell Bing, Alex Lewis.

Even Sims, who was supposed to be in the mold of Derrick Brooks on the weak side, didn't play well. The Lions desperately need talent here. Their linebackers just don't make enough plays — one interception, four sacks all season. The Lions wanted to upgrade the middle in the offseason. They drafted Dizon in the second round but hardly played him. They stuck with ex-Packer Lenon, who knew what he was doing mentally but often didn't get it done physically. Nece, a former Buccaneer who was supposed to know the Tampa Two, arrived just before the season and took over for Lewis on the strong side. Still, the unit did not improve. At times, the tackling was simply atrocious.

Vikings: Starters — SLB Chad Greenway, MLB Napoleon Harris, WLB Ben Leber. Backups — WLB Vinny Ciurciu, SLB Erin Henderson, MLB David Herron, MLB Dontarrious Thomas. Injured reserve — Heath Farwell, E.J. Henderson.

This group suffered a major blow in the fourth game of the season when defensive captain E.J. Henderson suffered two dislocated toes on his left foot and had to undergo season-ending surgery. The Vikings quickly signed Harris, who had been released by Kansas City, because he was familiar with Minnesota's system after spending 2006 with the team. Nonetheless, changes had to be made.

While Henderson had stayed on the field for all downs, Harris came out in the nickel package, leaving Greenway and Leber as the linebackers. In these instances, Leber had to assume the middle linebacker spot. Leber also became the linebacker who relayed the defenses into the huddle after getting them communicated into his helmet.

Still, this unit played well. Greenway was third on the team with six sacks and Leber led the club with four fumble recoveries and tied for the team lead with two interceptions. With Henderson expected to make a full recovery, Harris could be allowed to walk as a free agent this offseason. Herron also saw some playing time after Henderson got hurt but he also was slowed by injuries.

Ciurciu and Erin Henderson were viewed as special teams players and Thomas saw little time after being re-signed following E.J. Henderson's injury. In addition to Henderson, another key return could be that of Farwell. Farwell was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the exhibition opener. Set to become an unrestricted free agent, Farwell is a standout on special teams and has upside as backup a linebacker.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.


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