State of the Packers: OLBs

We kick off our State of the Packers series, a look at the roster following the draft. The Packers surprisingly didn't draft an outside linebacker. That's a vote of confidence for Brad Jones but it leaves the team with precarious depth behind Jones and Clay Matthews III.

Our State of the Packers series begins with the outside linebackers.


Starters: Clay Matthews III and Brad Jones. Veteran backups: Brady Poppinga, Cyril Obiozor, Robert Francois. Rookies: Tim Knicky, John Russell, Frank Zombo (all undrafted).

The big picture

That the Packers didn't draft an outside linebacker is arguably a bigger surprise then not drafting a cornerback. That's a strong signal that the Packers are happy with the long-term potential of last year's seventh-round pick, Jones, who finished with four sacks as the replacement for an injured Aaron Kampman. All of those sacks came in his final five games, when he collected eight of his 11 quarterback hits. Plus, he held up well enough against the run that Green Bay led the NFL in run defense.

The other starter, Matthews, played in the Pro Bowl following a brilliant rookie season of 10 sacks and 35 hits.

Depth is a major concern, a fact compounded by Jeremy Thompson's release and eventual retirement due to neck issues. Brady Poppinga started the first three games before Matthews took over, finishing with one sack and one quarterback hit in those starts. He played fleetingly on defense for the rest of the season. Poppinga has just four sacks in five NFL seasons (43 starts and 75 games). Obiozor spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad until a late promotion, and Francois was a late addition to the practice squad.

One veteran possibility is Adalius Thomas, who the Patriots released on Monday after using a second-rounder on Florida's Jermaine Cunningham. Thomas, however, is a declining player. He'll turn 33 during training camp and had just three sacks in 14 games (11 starts) in 2009 and five sacks in nine games (all starts) in 2008. He didn't produce a turnover in those two seasons. Thomas' agent, Bus Cook, did not return a message.

Barring a move on Thomas, there is a golden opportunity for Obiozor or one (or two) of the undrafted rookies to earn a spot on the roster and a key role on special teams.

Russell posted 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for losses while ranking fifth on the team with 46 tackles as a senior. The 6-foot-3 Russell played at an inflated 280 pounds to fill that role at Wake but will quickly shed the weight for his new role.

Zombo (6-3, 254) ranks second in Central Michigan history with 25.5 sacks, including three in the GMAC Bowl victory over Troy. He told the Morning Sun newspaper that the Packers called him during the seventh round to tell him they wanted to sign him. Zombo ran the 40 in 4.76 seconds with a 35.5-inch vertical at his pro day — showing the athletic ability that had some teams considering him as a tight end prospect.

Knicky (6-4, 251) also got a call from the Packers during the seventh round. Knicky, a high school wide receiver, walked on at Stephen F. Austin and blossomed into a two-time All-American defensive end with 24.5 sacks over his final two seasons. He ran as fast as 4.63 seconds with a 33.5-inch vertical at his pro day but lacks Zombo's strength. His position coach, Erik Slaughter, told Packer Report that the highly intelligent Knicky played a lot of coverage as a junior but was used only as a rusher as a senior.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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