Who Starts at Inside Linebacker?

A delicate decision could await if Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop continue to outplay A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett, who is coming back from a torn ACL. "We'll have enough different packages — if you have good football players, you've got to find a way to utilize them," coordinator Dom Capers said. For more, check out our feature on Bishop.

The Packers have a big "problem" on their hands. They have four quality inside linebackers but only two positions.

Fortunately, position coach Winston Moss comes to the rescue with a great solution.

"We're going to start playing doubleheaders," Moss said after Thursday morning's practice. "We're going to start playing illegal football to get all of those guys on the field."

Barring the Packers lining up with 13 defenders or a trade, Moss, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and coach Mike McCarthy have to figure out how to make use of Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop.

"They're killing me. They're killing me," Moss said. "They're looking at me like, ‘What the ...?' They want to get on the field. They want to contribute. They definitely feel they're warranted significant playing time."

The resumés speak for themselves.

— Barnett, a first-round pick and No. 29 overall in 2003, is a two-time Pro Bowl alternate and the franchise's single-season record-holder for tackles.

— Hawk, a first-round pick and No. 5 overall in 2006, has led the Packers in tackles in two of his first three seasons.

— Chillar, a fourth-round pick by St. Louis in 2004, started seven games last season — six in place of an injured Barnett — and was arguably the team's best linebacker.

— Bishop, a sixth-round pick in 2007, didn't get many opportunities last season but made an impact with a team-high three forced fumbles — including a fourth-down stop and strip of Adrian Peterson.

Obviously, the coaches aren't going to unveil any of their ideas to a reporter in August, but Capers hinted that he'll find a way to capitalize on the strengths of each player. For instance, on passing downs, maybe the coaches would insert Bishop at right outside linebacker and replace Hawk with Chillar, who is so good in coverage.

"You hope you have that problem at every position," Capers said. "I think the guys who have been out there have played very well picking up the scheme. They've been productive, both blitzing and covering. We'll have enough different packages — if you have good football players, you've got to find a way to utilize them. There'll be times we'll have more linebackers on the field. It's one of the advantage of playing 3-4, you've got four linebackers out there at one time."

During training camp, Chillar has been perhaps the best of any of the starting linebackers, inside or outside, and Bishop's big-play performance against Cleveland on Saturday was a carryover of what he's been doing at training camp. Hawk, meanwhile, has been good but not great and Barnett is in the process of shaking off nine months of rust after suffering a season-ending knee injury last year.

Linebacker Brandon Chillar has been taking the reps for injured Nick Barnett.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
That a fill-in starter (Chillar) and a reserve (Bishop) are playing better than the presumed starters could pose a delicate problem.

Barnett and Hawk are both first-round picks, with Barnett playing under a six-year, $35 million extension signed in April 2007 that runs through the 2012 season and Hawk playing under his six-year, $37.5 million rookie deal that runs through 2011.

With that kind of investment, putting either on the bench would be difficult. Plus, Barnett is one of the emotional leaders of the team and Hawk is one of its most popular among fans.

However, Barnett only this week got on the field for the first time after tearing the ACL in his right knee against Minnesota on Nov. 9, and Hawk has been nothing more than solid during his first three seasons and the beginning of training camp.

Whether Barnett will be ready for the season opener could be determined next week, when he might be cleared for full-contact practices. Thus far, the only competitive portion of practice he's taken part in is the seven-on-seven passing drills, which are a good test of his change-of-direction skills and explosion though obviously not the same challenge as fighting off a block to make a tackle.

"Nick Barnett looks very good," Moss said. "A lot of energy. He's got a ton of energy. He's driving me crazy. He looks very good. He's a little bit further ahead of schedule than we might have anticipated. He's done a great job of preparing and studying. There hasn't been as much of a hill to climb as I thought there would be."

Barnett has been working overtime to get a mental grip on the defense, going so far as to make flashcards so his wife can quiz him at home.

"You can just tell there's an added intensity with him mentally because he knows he's missed so much physically," Moss said. "He's taken the exact approach I thought he would."

Through almost three weeks of camp, Chillar and Bishop have been the top performers at the position, though that can change with three preseason games remaining, including Saturday against Buffalo.

"I think Coach Capers, he will create ways to try to utilize all of the productive guys that we have on our defense, let's put it that way," Moss said. "It's obviously not a game-plan situation yet, so as we get closer to the season, then we'll define exactly who we're going to have and what their role is going to be."

Bishop is a preseason Hall of Famer who's never gotten much of a chance to show his skills in the regular season. On Saturday, Bishop was the star of the game, with one sack, one interception and four quarterback hits — one of which led to an interception by Tramon Williams.

The tape told the same story as the 69,000-plus at Lambeau Field saw against the Browns.

"Exactly what you saw, a lot of production," Moss said.

Asked if he thinks he should be a starter, Bishop replied: "I don't know. People keep asking me that. What do you think? I think that's kind of the natural process, right? Hopefully, but I have to go out and execute my end of the defense and let everything sort itself out."

McCarthy was asked about Bishop's prospects after Thursday night's practice. He answered the question with a question, hinting that nothing's been decided and/or the coaching staff is aware of the difficult decision that awaits if Bishop and Chillar continue their strong play.

"What is a starting job? Is it base? Is it sub?," McCarthy said, "He's made a point to participate in some of our packages. I think that's been clear throughout training camp. He's a very effective blitzer. He's definitely going to be a part of our plans."

Chillar is in much the same position as Bishop. Chillar, who has been taking all of the No. 1 reps since the offseason with Barnett a spectator, is enjoying a superb training camp. He was signed as a free agent last year because of his coverage skills — which make him a big asset in a 3-4 defense — but he's proven to be a deft blitzer and solid run defender.

"He's extremely versatile," Moss said. "I'm very pleased with his progress. His attitude has picked up, his leadership has picked up. He's one of those guys that you're going to try to be as creative as possible and try to find ways to exploit his talent. It's a good thing."

Hawk, who has started all 48 games in his three seasons, has lined up next to Chillar with the No. 1 defense for every snap since the offseason. The coaches maintain that Hawk — beat up with a variety of nagging injuries last season — not only remains a starter but a three-down player. Still, while Hawk is solid, he lacks that wrecking-ball style that defines Bishop.

"It's good to be around good players," Hawk said. "You want to be around good players. Everything we do is a competitive drill. Being around each other makes all of us better because we're always pushing each other to do better, to make plays. When we watch film together, we talk about what you think would work and we kind of bounce ideas off each other all the time."

Moss, Capers and McCarthy figure "things will sort themselves out." That means preseason games against Buffalo, Arizona and Tennessee will be critical moments for this stellar foursome.

"We're weeks away from making those calls," McCarthy said. "We've got to get ready to play this game, see how they respond, and then have a short week and go out to Arizona. That's why we play the games. I'm not ready to pick the team."

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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, 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.

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