Packer Report continues its position-by-position training camp preview with a look at the outside linebackers. The list after "depth" includes all of the players on the current roster. The list after "final cut" is our prediction on who will make the final roster.
Review: Aaron Kampman is the ringleader of this group. With 37 sacks over the last three seasons, he is one of the NFL's preeminent pass rushers. But once right defensive end Cullen Jenkins went down in Week 4 last year, Kampman had a hard time beating the constant double teams from his spot at left defensive end. After posting four sacks in September with Jenkins as his sidekick, Kampman managed only 5.5 the rest of the season, including none in December. Brady Poppinga didn't make much of an impact from strong-side linebacker, with no sacks, no interceptions, no forced fumbles and no fumble recoveries. He lost playing time to Brandon Chillar against teams with receiving tight ends, and his late-season cameo as a pass-rushing end didn't produce many benefits. He remains a tough customer against the run, though. Jeremy Thompson, a fourth-round pick, started three games after Jenkins went down. He tallied 13 tackles in nine games with no sacks or turnover plays.
Strength: It's hard to say where the strength of this group is because there are so many question marks. While his coaches and insiders around the league believe Kampman will successfully make the transition to left outside linebacker, Kampman's lack of anything substantive to say about the move suggests he has doubts. By all accounts, Kampman put in the mental time during the offseason and he's more athletic than many people believe. And with the 3-4 being only the base defense, coach Mike McCarthy has said Kampman will spend about 60 percent of his snaps at left defensive end when the Packers revert to a four-man front on passing downs. He'll be flanked by either Jeremy Thompson or Clay Matthews III. Matthews, a first-round pick who cost the Packers one second-round choice and a pair of third-rounders, has the genes, intelligence, work ethic and ability to be a star. Thompson's role while a defensive end at Wake Forest required him to do many of the things he'll be doing in this defense. He was definitely the surprise of the offseason at this position. This is the glamour position of this defense, with the defensive line doing all of the dirty work so the outside linebackers can attack.
Weakness: Questions, questions, questions. Can Kampman make the transition after generally looking like a fish out of water for most of the offseason practices? After spending seven seasons at end, you can understand Kampman's slow transition, but as this team's top playmaker among the front seven, the Packers need him to hit the ground running in Week 1. Thompson looked unsure of himself for much of last season. Does he have the ability to find that extra gear to be more than just a player on the field? For all of Matthews' skills and pedigree, it's important to remember that he wasn't a starter at USC until early in his senior season. USC is a heck of a good program, but you'd think a first-round talent would be good enough to start for more than 10 games in five seasons. Poppinga is the type of gung-ho player coaches love and he never shies away from a collision, but 3-4 outside linebackers must be good against the run, good in coverage and strong pass rushers. In his career, he hasn't shown much ability in coverage or attacking the quarterback.
Quoteworthy: "He has looked pretty comfortable throughout the month of June to me," coach Mike McCarthy said of Kampman. "I like what I have seen (from) Aaron Kampman. Aaron has spent a lot of extra time with (outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene). He seems comfortable out there in space in the things we are asking him to do. I think he is a much better athlete than people give him credit, making the change as you can say from defensive end to outside linebacker. I expect Aaron to be very, very productive in this defense."
Final cut (5): Kampman, Matthews, Thompson, Poppinga, Jones.
Kampman, Matthews and Thompson are sure things. Poppinga, who signed a five-year, $17 million contract extension in July 2008, probably makes it too as insurance in case Kampman exits in free agency next season. As it is, he probably won't play much this year because he and Kampman both are on the left side and Kampman is as tough as nails. Brad Jones, a seventh-round pick, is an athletic player who did just about everything as an outside linebacker in Colorado's 3-4. Jones (239 pounds) figures to be a core member of special teams but needs to get bigger to play on defense. There's a chance the Packers keep the undrafted Cyril Obiozor, too, but that would require them to short themselves someplace else. At 259 pounds, he's got great size.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.