Camp analysis: NFC North linebackers
Starters – WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Nick Roach. Backups – LB Geno Hayes, SLB/WLB Patrick Trahan, MLB Dom DeCicco, SLB Jabara Williams, LB J.T. Thomas, LB Adrien Cole, LB Ronnie Thornton.
It would be easy to question how much longer Urlacher and Briggs can play at their current elite level. Urlacher turned 34 in May and Briggs will be 32 halfway through the season. But in 2011 Urlacher was voted to the Pro Bowl for the eighth time, and Briggs made it for the seventh straight time. Roach is underappreciated as the other starter, but he has 41 starts over the past four seasons. Veteran Geno Hayes was added to compete with him and to provide depth, which remains dangerously thin. DeCicco was a standout on special teams and Williams is an athlete who can run. But neither player is ready to step into the starting lineup.
Starters – OLB Justin Durant, MLB Stephen Tulloch, OLB DeAndre Levy. Backups – OLB Doug Hogue, OLB Tahir Whitehead, OLB Travis Lewis, MLB Ashlee Palmer, MLB Slade Norris, OLB Carmen Messina, MLB Ronnie Sneed.
Easily the most improved position group last season with the addition of Tulloch and Durant, the question now is can it take another step? Levy, who moved from middle to outside linebacker last season, should be more stable at the position. He was mostly a two-down player last season, taken out on passing downs. It will be interesting to see how much his cover ability improves. There should be an intense battle for the fourth linebacker spot between second-year man Hogue and rookie Whitehead. Hogue grew nearly a full inch and gained 15 pounds in the offseason and the coaching staff was raving about Whitehead's speed and athleticism. Veteran Ashlee Palmer has moved to middle linebacker, but he will have to beat out rookie Travis Lewis to keep a roster spot.
Green Bay Packers
Starters – OLB Nick Perry, ILB Desmond Bishop, ILB A.J. Hawk, OLB Clay Matthews. Backups – ILB D.J. Smith, OLB Erik Walden, ILB Terrell Manning, OLB Frank Zombo, ILB Brad Jones, OLB Vic So'oto, ILB Robert Francois, OLB Dezman Moses, ILB Jamari Lattimore.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers didn't waste any time shaking up the lineup in an effort to shake his unit out of its pass-rushing doldrums from last season. No sooner did Perry arrive as this year's first-round draft pick than Capers plugged the former USC standout in at left- or strong-side linebacker and moved Matthews to the right or weak side in Green Bay's 3-4 front. If the tenacious Perry can successfully make the conversion from hand-in-the-ground defensive end to stand-up linebacker – and it's a relatively big 'if' right now – then All-Pro Matthews should benefit after languishing with a career-low six sacks in 2011. Former starters Walden and Zombo still could be summoned for playing time if Capers tries to mix things up with his schemes, but those veterans are on the bubble for making the final roster what with the upside for So'oto as a second-year player and the pass-rushing exploits this spring by undrafted rookie Moses, a converted defensive end. The competition for backup spots on the inside also should be fierce behind Bishop, who's a playmaker when healthy, and Hawk, the underwhelming first-rounder in whom the coaches still have faith after six years. Smith has the assignment-sure, big-play capabilities to push Hawk aside, as exhibited in a three-game starting stint as a rookie last season. Manning also will warrant attention, playing with a chip on his shoulder after falling to the fifth round in this year's draft. Onetime starter Jones and Lattimore were moved inside in the offseason.
Starters – WLB Erin Henderson, MLB Jasper Brinkley, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups – MLB Audie Cole, MLB Marvin Mitchell, WLB Larry Dean, WLB Solomon Elimimian, SLB Tyrone McKenzie, MLB Tyler Nielson, OLB Corey Paredes.
So far, the Vikings are taking a leap of faith that Brinkley can replace long-time starter and team leader E.J. Henderson at middle linebacker. Henderson remains unsigned, but that could change if the Vikings get desperate enough. Brinkley missed all of last season because of hip surgery. He was then limited in OTAs and minicamp. The team said it was a groin injury, while Brinkley said it was his hip. Brinkley also is a downhill run-stuffer who struggled with the deep middle coverage assignments in the Tampa-2 scheme. Erin Henderson probably will play in the middle in the nickel package. He became a starter a year ago and had a decent season. He was upset the team didn't give him a multi-year contract, but the one-year deal he signed will motivate him this season. Greenway is a steady player who has led the team in tackles the past four years. He doesn't make a lot of splash plays, but the defense also doesn't put him in the best positions to make them. If Brinkley doesn't work out at middle linebacker, Mitchell was an under-the-radar free-agent signing that could pay off. Cole is a massive linebacker (6-4, 246) who could find a role as a seventh-round pick.
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