Even with the switch to a 3-4 defense, the Green Bay Packers were deep at the linebacker position.
Five players who were at least part-time starters from last year return — Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Brandon Chillar, Brady Poppinga and Aaron Kampman — and Desmond Bishop and Jeremy Thompson started in a few games, as well. Throw in holdovers Danny Lansanah and Jason Hunter, a key special-teams performer, and that's nine linebackers. Practice-squad player Spencer Havner also spent a few games on the roster. So, that's 10 linebackers, and the Packers figure to keep only nine.
So, with first-round pick Clay Matthews III and seventh-round pick Brad Jones added to the mix, some interesting roster decisions will have to be made during what figures to be some spirited training camp battles.
Roster locks: Barnett, Hawk, Kampman, Matthews.
Almost locks: Chillar, Bishop.
Versatility rules here, as both can play inside and outside. In a 3-4 defense, the outside linebackers must be able to rush the passer and play coverage. Chillar was signed last offseason because of his coverage skills, and he wound up being the only linebacker who was a semieffective blitzer. Bishop forced three fumbles last season in limited action. By contrast, Hawk has forced two in three seasons and Barnett two in six seasons.
The battles: Poppinga, Lansanah, Thompson, Hunter, Havner and Jones.
Each of the five players (I am discounting Havner, who has barely played in his three years with the team) brings something to the table. For Poppinga, it's his intensity, attitude and experience. For Lansanah, it's his potential. Remember, the Packers liked him enough to release special-teams standout Tracy White last season. Thompson was a fourth-round pick last year who showed some potential. Hunter was a special-teams demon in 2007 but slumped last season. Jones, a rookie seventh-round pick, is a versatile, athletic defender who should fit in on special teams immediately.
Poppinga faces his most important training camp since being a fourth-round draft pick in 2005. His intensity figures to mesh perfectly with new outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene. He's got the size, strength and athletic ability to fit the new scheme.
But, the most important skills for an outside linebacker in a 3-4 are to play coverage and rush the passer. Poppinga has never been skilled in coverage — hence, the signing of Chillar — and he bombed when thrown into a pass-rushing role by desperate defensive coordinator Bob Sanders in the final month of last season.
Either the change in scheme is just what he needs and Greene will teach him how to sack the quarterback, or he'll be a fish out of water.
Lansanah, an undrafted rookie last season, played in just five games after being promoted from the practice squad. He wasn't a factor in the base defense and was only OK on special teams. At 6-foot-1 and 248 pounds, he's got the size and popping ability to play inside linebacker.
When drafted last year, Thompson was being billed as a possible situational pass rusher. The 6-foot-4, 270-pounder did some pass rushing at Wake Forest with 6.5 sacks as a senior but also played plenty of coverage. That makes him a potentially good fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Hunter's niche appears to be on special teams, since he hasn't done much when given chances in the base defense. In 2007, his 25 coverage tackles were the most by a Packer in 22 years. Last year, with a bulked-up physique to give him a chance at defensive end, he had just three special-teams tackles. Maybe a slimmer Hunter will fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker while providing an impact on special teams.
Finally, there's Jones. Scout.com draft analyst Chris Steuber thinks Jones has a shot of making it in the NFL, especially on special teams. Jones' position coach at Colorado, Brian Cabral, told Packer Report that Jones' best days are ahead of him. He was effective in coverage and rushing the passer last season, which is what you want from an outside linebacker. He needs to bulk up from his current weight of 232 pounds, but he's got the athletic ability and frame to beat the odds of a seventh-round pick.
Bill's prediction: Barnett's health is in question after tearing an ACL during a midseason game at Minnesota. For the sake of this, though, let's assume he's healthy and ready to go for Week 1.
The Packers kept nine defensive linemen and six linebackers on their roster last season, and coach Mike McCarthy said those numbers would be flip-flopped in a 3-4. With Barnett, Hawk, Matthews and Kampman assured roster spots and Bishop and Chillar pretty good bets, that means the other five players will be battling for three roster spots.
It's possible Thompson won't be able to make the transition and Jones will fall on his face. But those two would be front-runners for roster spots, making it Poppinga, Hunter and Lansanah battling for the final spot. Who wins it? Will Poppinga find the 3-4 a perfect fit? Will Hunter be a special-teams stud? Will Lansanah take a big step forward?
The guess is it will be Hunter, because the Packers are putting additional emphasis on special teams, but never count out Poppinga.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.