Packer Report continues its position-by-position training camp preview with a look at the inside 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: The Packers didn't get nearly a big enough impact from the six players on this depth chart. Nick Barnett's season ended with a torn ACL in his right knee during a midseason matchup at Minnesota. After being a Pro Bowl alternate the previous two seasons, Barnett wasn't having his finest year in 2008. He entered the season with a career average of 10.2 tackles per game but was on pace to post only 7.6 stops per game last season. The Packers went just 2-5 without him, including a loss to Carolina in which they yielded five rushing touchdowns. A.J. Hawk moved from the weak side to the middle to replace Barnett and tallied a team-high 121 tackles, but most of those were 4 or 5 yards down the field. Between them, Hawk had three sacks and Barnett forced a fumble — that's it for big plays. Desmond Bishop provided plenty of impact in limited opportunity, though all of it wasn't good. Brandon Chillar was arguably the Packers' best linebacker last year. He was a part-time starter on the strong side vs. teams with good tight ends early in the season, then moved into Hawk's spot on the weak side when Hawk replaced Barnett. He had nine passes defensed and was a better blitzer than his one sack would indicate. Danny Lansanah did next to nothing when he was promoted from the practice squad in Week 6, though he showed some hitting ability as an undrafted rookie during training camp. Havner, a three-year veteran of the practice squad, downed two punts inside the 10-yard line during a four-game December promotion.
Strength: You could do worse than having a pair of former first-round picks manning the inside positions. Both are hungry, too, after coming off of injury-plagued seasons. Barnett might not be the biggest guy but it's hard to argue with his 160 tackles per season and nine interceptions from 2003 through 2007. The depth is terrific. Chillar replaced Barnett during offseason practices and looked smooth enough that the Packers probably would be fine if Barnett isn't ready for Week 1. As a reserve, he's a good option to come in on passing downs because of his coverage skills. Bishop is a physical tackler and a good special-teams player with 15 tackles last year. Of all of the inside linebackers, Bishop seems to be the only difference-maker. His three forced fumbles in the second half of last season are more than Barnett's two in six seasons and Hawk's two in three seasons.
Weakness: Will Barnett be ready to go for Week 1, and if he's on the field, will he be close to 100 percent healthy? At 236 pounds, he's not the ideal size to play on the inside in a 3-4 defense, though those concerns have been somewhat overblown. Nonetheless, his success will depend on the defensive line's ability to demand double-team blocking. Otherwise, Barnett could be facing a lot of one-on-one matchups with 310-pound guards. Hawk played through a litany of injuries last year that sapped him of his explosiveness. He needs to be a physical force who finally plays to the top-five pick he was in 2006. For all of Bishop's upside, there are the bad plays that keep him from really challenging for a starting job. He was toasted in coverage by Minnesota's Chester Taylor and Houston's Owen Daniels, and was partially responsible for Adrian Peterson's winning touchdown run at Minnesota. If you could combine Chillar's coverage skills with Bishop's hitting ability, you'd have a Hall of Famer.
Quoteworthy: "When you first get hurt, you're wondering like, ‘Am I going to be able to come back from something like this?' But then you find out it's OK. There have been a lot of guys who came back," Barnett said.
Final cut (4): Barnett, Hawk, Bishop, Chillar.
This grouping seems pretty well cut-and-dried, though Lansanah had a good training camp last summer and Havner could stick for special-teams purposes if he makes it as a third tight end. Both, however, appears to be long shots to break in with this quartet.
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