Inside linebacker (Buck)
Bet you didn't know that Hawk was a Pro Bowl alternate last season. Bet you think that's just typical Pro Bowl voting, with players and fans voting for familiar names. When inside linebackers coach Winston Moss reviewed the tape, though, he thought Hawk played to that level. Hawk will never be a star, especially in this system. In the 3-4, it frequently is up to one inside linebacker to do the dirty work and the other to make the plays. Generally, that means it's the bigger and more physical Hawk taking on blockers and allowing the others to make tackles. It takes a team effort to lead the NFL in run defense, so Hawk must have been doing something right. He's just a solid player who rarely makes mistakes. The problem is Hawk sticks to the system almost to a fault and only rarely has been impactful. Used frequently as a blitzer last year, he delivered just one sack — though even there, he sacrificed himself a number of times. He's forced only two fumbles in his first four seasons, including none since Oct. 14, 2007. At least he picked off two passes last year, including one against Baltimore when he ran deep down the seam to intercept a pass to standout tight end Todd Heap. It was the type of play that made you wonder why the Packers had to sign Chillar to take over coverage duties. Because of Hawk's inadequacies in coverage, he barely played in three games last season — including the playoff game against Arizona. Chillar wasn't nearly as solid last season as he was in 2008, though more was asked of him in the new scheme — including stints at safety in the "Big Okie" scheme. Aside from a highlight-reel sack against Chicago in which he hurdled running back Garrett Wolf, Chillar wasn't much better as a blitzer than Hawk. Nonetheless, he's an in-case-of-emergency option at outside linebacker and a key chess piece for coordinator Dom Capers.
Moss, on Hawk: "For him to not only be a productive player when he's on the field, but also when he has the opportunity to make a play, with his ability, to go outside the framework and go ahead and take his shot."
Could be better
Hawk was the first of five linebackers selected in the first round in 2006. The Vikings' Chad Greenway (No. 17 overall) and the Niners' Manny Lawson (No. 22) are the only ones who have panned out but even they haven't been stars. At No. 33 overall, Houston landed the best linebacker in the draft, with Houston's DeMeco Ryans being a two-time Pro Bowler.
Could be worse
Since they were drafted, the comparisons were inevitable between fifth-overall pick Hawk and ninth-overall pick Ernie Sims of the Lions. Sims drew early comparisons to Buccaneers great Derrick Brooks but fizzled. In four seasons, Sims has 505 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one interception, three forced fumbles and two recoveries. He was traded to Philadelphia in a deal in which the Lions acquired tight end Tony Scheffler. Hawk has 492 tackles, 8.5 sacks, five interceptions, two forced fumbles and three recoveries. Advantage, Hawk.
Inside linebacker (Mack)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
There are a lot of reasons why the Packers' defense found its stride last season after a rocky start. A good a reason as any is Barnett. After tearing his ACL midway through 2008, Barnett was held out of all of the offseason workouts — meaning he was limited to spectator status as he tried to learn his new role in Capers' 3-4. After being limited to part-time duty in the first three games, the Packers ranked 19th in total defense, 23rd against the run and 13th against the pass. Barnett returned to a full-time role in Week 4 at Minnesota. By the time the Packers faced the Vikings again in Week 8 and Barnett had become more sure of his knee and the scheme, the Packers ranked fourth in total defense, ninth against the run and ninth against the pass. By season's end, the defense ranked second, including first against the run and fifth against the pass. Used more often as a blitzer, Barnett tallied a career-high four sacks. He led the team in tackles with 122, and his eight passes defensed were just one off his career high. For the first time in his career, he wasn't involved in forcing a turnover. The emotional heartbeat of the defense, Barnett had his surgically repaired knee cleaned up after the season and he again missed the offseason workouts. Nonetheless, the coaches are expecting a return to his production of 2007, when he posted a career-high 165 tackles with 3.5 sacks and three turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble recovery). Barnett is backed up by Desmond Bishop, a training camp hall of famer who has made no impact when given opportunities to play defense in the regular season. Bishop led the special teams with 23 tackles. No doubt he's looking forward to becoming a free agent after this season.
Moss, on Barnett: "He didn't take any reps until training camp, he was on a rotation for the first part of last year, still ends up being highly impactful, blitzing from the inside and outside, still led the team in tackles, still very very productive. From that standpoint, he's now going to be two years removed from the injury when the season rolls around, so I would anticipate a Barnett who gets back to playing with that chip that he had in '07 and I expect to see a very impactful player."
Could be better
The Packers grabbed Barnett with the 29th pick of the 2003 draft. Imagine this defense had they grabbed ace corner Nnamdi Asomugha, who went at No. 31 to Oakland.
Could be worse
A whopping nine linebackers went in the second round after Barnett was picked late in the first. Barnett's instant comparison was to Boss Bailey, who went to Detroit at No. 34. Bailey was a bust whose career ended with a knee injury in 2008. Outside of the Vikings' oft-injured E.J. Henderson and Ram-turned-Bear Pisa Tinoisamoa, you've probably never heard of the other linebackers taken in that round.
On a scale of 1 to 10 ...
This is a good group. Good, not great. Barnett has been productive but is prone to missing some tackles and he sometimes lets his emotions get the best of him in big moments. If you believe the rankings at Pro Football Focus, Barnett was the third-best inside linebacker in the NFL last year, behind only Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis. Hawk is as steady as steady can be, and Chillar makes a terrific complement.
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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.