McCarthy, Thompson give rough draft of LBs

The brain trust of the Packers met with reporters on Friday in Indianapolis and talked in depth about the linebackers. See who fits in where, with comments on all of the contenders.

While much of the focus on the Packers' new defense has been on Aaron Kampman, it's good to remember that playing a 3-4 defense requires four linebackers.

So, who plays the other three linebacker positions?

If the Packers were to line up today, they would have Brady Poppinga at the other outside linebacker and Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk as the inside linebackers, coach Mike McCarthy said on Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

Of course, there's more than five months until training camp begins, and things can change. Nick Barnett is coming off of a season-ending knee surgery, Hawk hasn't lived up to being the fifth pick in the 2006 draft and Poppinga faces several challengers, not the least of which could be a first- or second-round draft pick.

"This is going to be a work in progress," general manager Ted Thompson said on Friday morning.

Here is the linebacker breakdown from McCarthy and Thompson:

Inside linebacker (weak side): Nick Barnett. Barnett tore the ACL in his right knee during a midseason game at Minnesota. McCarthy said he'll have to fight the urge to let the fiery Barnett get on the field too soon to learn the new defense.

"I would just say with this type of injury, there is always the need to be more cautious than rushing him out there," Barnett said. "I know with the defensive change, I know Nick's personality that he'll probably want to get out there sooner than later. But I think training camp would definitely be something that is a target. We'll see how he goes through the (organized team activities in March) and maybe the last minicamp there in June."

Inside linebacker (strong side): A.J. Hawk. McCarthy said Hawk likely will play on the strong side. Hawk is coming off a disappointing season in which he led the team in tackles but made practically no impact plays, including zero fumbles or interceptions. Thompson said Hawk played through some "pretty significant problems," alluding to a groin injury that sapped Hawk of his quickness.

"I think he's a good player," Thompson said, adding he believes Hawk remains a Pro Bowl talent. "I think a lot of people who weren't able to sit around and watch tape and notice that he didn't intercept a pass or something, might be a little bit more critical than they should be."

Outside linebacker: Aaron Kampman. McCarthy said he talked to Kampman last week, and Kampman expressed excitement about the defensive changes. Kampman is more athletic than some people believe, McCarthy pointed out, and should be able to remain a playmaker. Plus, as McCarthy has said repeatedly in the last couple of months, the 3-4 is simply the base defense – the Packers played their base defense no more than 200 snaps in the entire season, McCarthy said -- and Kampman will line up as a pass-rushing defensive end frequently in sub-packages.

Outside linebacker: Brady Poppinga (maybe). McCarthy and Thompson said Poppinga is penciled in as the starter, but that's hardly etched in stone.

"Well, that first step is why we're here today," Thompson said when asked if the second starting outside linebacker might be someone at the Combine. "We're here looking at all the college prospects and our scouts have done a great job grading those players and fitting them into the positions we think they can play."

In contention: McCarthy and Thompson said Brandon Chillar fits into the mix in the inside and outside. Same for Desmond Bishop.

"I think Bishop can play inside or outside," McCarthy said. "You haven't seen Bishop rush a whole lot from an edge, but watching him in the opponent's squad, the way he plays on special teams, I think he definitely has shown ability to play outside or inside."

McCarthy sounded equally intrigued by Jason Hunter and Jeremy Thompson, two guys who played defensive end last season but had practically zero impact. Hunter is a good athlete and special teams player, but none of that has shown up on defense.

"I think Jason Hunter, this will definitely help him," McCarthy said.

Thompson had an up-and-down rookie season, but he should be adept at this role because he dropped into coverage frequently while playing defensive end at Wake Forest.

"He played in a more-square stance down there, so it was a big adjustment for him to come from Wake Forest to our defense," McCarthy said. "So, I thought he did a much better job, particularly at the end in the year, pass rushing and so forth. So, all of that will be the same as far as the outside linebacker position. I think a lot of that will transfer to him."

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.

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