While Atari Bigby's ankle surgery essentially means rookie Morgan Burnett will be the Week 1 starter at safety, Brad Jones' back injury has created another must-see clash. Even with Jones back on the practice field for both of Thursday's practices, Brandon Chillar took all of the No. 1 reps, both in the base defense and in nickel.
"There's competition everywhere," coach Mike McCarthy said after Thursday night's practice. "We're not giving the job to Brad; we're not giving it to Brandon. Availability is the No. 1 component of being on the field, and Brad's had an issue with that the beginning of last year and the beginning of this year. So, we've got a healthy competition. We like the rotation now that's been created with Brandon over there."
Last year as a rookie first-round pick, Clay Matthews was put at right outside linebacker because Aaron Kampman had spent his whole career playing left defensive end. Thus, the coaches thought one transition was enough for Kampman, so he stayed on the left side.
After earning Pro Bowl accolades with 10 sacks on the right side last year, Matthews has played practically every snap at left outside linebacker over the last few days, with former inside linebacker Chillar on the right side. Jones, who started nine games at left outside linebacker last year, lined up on the right side on Thursday with the second unit, with veteran Brady Poppinga on the right side.
"He's got to break some crust off, but he's an athlete," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said of Jones. "With an athlete, you can take him and put him on the right side, left side, middle side, upside down, whatever, and they will be absolutely fine. After they break the crust off and they settle in, they will be fine. But he's not going to always be that side. He'll be left side, too."
The early read on the linebacker switches is overwhelmingly positive. Matthews dominates, regardless of where he lines up. Chillar obviously has impressed the coaches — otherwise, the experiment would have been over the moment Jones returned — and he was active during a blitz period on Thursday.
The flexibility to line up the linebackers at either side really caters to Matthews in hopes of freeing him up for one-on-one matchups. Adding Chillar obviously builds depth at a position that's short on proven players. Plus, getting Chillar out of the equation at inside linebacker allows the coaches to give a fair shot to Desmond Bishop, who's been a training camp stud the last two years. While Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk remain the starters, Bishop has been replacing Hawk in nickel.
"I see good things on a lot of combinations that we're doing," Greene said. "I'm glad we got Bishop in there. He's a heck of a talent. Chilly's a heck of a talent. Dom (Capers) has us doing a lot of different things for a variety of personnel groupings, getting some athletes on the field. It's a good thing."
From a team concept, moving Matthews to left outside linebacker makes sense from two perspectives. Most teams are right-handed in their run game, which means they'd be running behind their right tackle and at Matthews. Matthews is more than just a sackmaster. During Thursday night's practice, he tossed tight end Tom Crabtree aside on a running play to make a tackle. A moment later, he raced down the line of scrimmage to make the stop at the opposite sideline. On passing downs, the right tackle is generally the lesser of the two pass protectors. That improves the odds of getting a sack.
Greene made most of his hay as a Hall of Fame-worthy 3-4 outside linebacker by playing on the left side, and Matthews is his star pupil.
Meanwhile, Jones is taking it all in stride. After all, at this point last year, he looked like a long shot to make the team. With a scrimmage and four preseason games coming up, the final chapter on this story hasn't been written. Neither switching positions nor having to fight for his job fazed him in the slightest.
"You always have to compete for your job," Jones said. "It's the NFL. It's the best players in the world. I'm going to have to compete for a spot if I was anywhere on the team."
He added: "Clay had all of those sacks on that side, so, hey, maybe I can."
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