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LBs: Packers offseason by position

Players under contract
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
55
Desmond Bishop
ILB
6-2
238
27
5
California
50
A.J. Hawk
ILB
6-1
247
28
6
Ohio State
49
Robert Francois
ILB
6-2
255
26
2
Boston College
51
D.J. Smith
ILB
5-11
239
22
R
Appalachian State
52
Clay Matthews
OLB
6-3
255
25
3
Southern California
59
Brad Jones
OLB
6-3
242
25
3
Colorado
58
Frank Zombo
OLB
6-3
254
24
2
Central Michigan
97
Vic So'oto
OLB
6-3
263
24
R
Brigham Young
57
Jamari Lattimore
OLB
6-2
230
 23
R
Middle Tennessee St.
 
Free agents
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
93
Erik Walden
OLB
6-2
250
26
 4
Middle Tennessee St.

The good news:  Even though his sack numbers were down precipitously – just six, after a combined 23.5 his first two NFL seasons – Clay Matthews is on the Green Bay Packers’ roster, and that’s awfully good news. ProFootballFocus.com credited Matthews with six sacks, 22 quarterback hits and 43 pressures in 16 games (including the playoff loss to the New York Giants) last season; in 2010, he had 17 sacks, 12 hits and 45 pressures in 19 games; in 2009, he had 11 sacks, 14 hits and 26 pressures in 16 games. So his overall production, despite the extra attention he gets, didn’t drop. He was also solid in coverage (three interceptions, only one 20-yard pass play allowed) and remains a high-effort player. Bishop is almost as valuable and certainly deserves credit for a fine season, too. He missed three games after pulling his calf at Detroit on Thanksgiving, but he still led the team in tackles in the regular season (142), forced two fumbles and had five sacks, second only to Matthews on the sack-starved defense. After becoming the starter in 2010 following Nick Barnett’s broken wrist, Bishop took his game to a new level in 2011.

The bad news:  Outside linebackers in the 3-4 defense can come from just about anywhere and develop into terrific players, with James Harrison being Exhibit A. The Packers had success on a lesser level in the previous two years with Jones, a seventh-round pick in 2009 who started nine games as a rookie; with Zombo, an undrafted free agent who made the conversion from 4-3 defensive end after being scouted by some NFL teams as a potential tight end; and Walden, who had a breakthrough three-sack game in the 2010 must-win regular-season finale against Chicago. The problem in 2011, of course, was that none of those players elevated his game and gave Matthews an adequate running mate, leaving the right outside linebacker position as the most glaring of needs as the offseason heats up. Zombo had his moments as a rookie (five sacks, three quarterback hits, six pressures) but 2011 was a wasted year after he suffered one injury after another. At this point, it doesn’t appear that he, Jones or Walden (the position’s lone free agent) has what it takes to be an impact player. “We were looking for that guy this year,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said after the season. “We gave a number of guys the opportunities to step up and show that he was going to be that guy, and they came up short. It didn’t happen. (So) we’re still looking for that guy. We definitely are looking for somebody to be the match for Clay on the other side of the defense. Absolutely.”

The big question: While it’s hard to predict how much interest Walden will generate on the free-agent market, his status is hardly the biggest question of the offseason. Instead, it’s a player who isn’t scheduled to be a free agent: Hawk. The Packers had to cut Hawk last offseason because the final year of his rookie contract called for a $10 million guaranteed salary. Then, in the brief window before the lockout, the Packers re-upped with Hawk, giving him a five-year, $33 million deal with a guaranteed $10 million up front. As it turned out, it was a costly purchase. Hawk was his usual solid-but-unspectacular self, and when Smith, a rookie, filled in, he played as well if not better, showing how easily Hawk could be replaced. The question now becomes, does Thompson, who drafted Hawk with the No. 5 pick in 2006, live with the signing or cut his losses?

Offseason outlook: While Thompson isn’t going to go all Ron Wolf and use his first three picks in the 2012 NFL Draft on outside linebackers a la Wolf in 1999 with cornerbacks, it’s not hard to imagine him picking a bevy of defensive players if the board falls in his favor. Outside linebacker has to be at the top of his wish list. Meanwhile, Greene hasn’t completely given up hope on his “kids,” and So’oto, for one, is an interesting candidate. He only saw limited action on defense and the word “raw” is often used to describe him, but an offseason in the program can do nothing but help him. “If we had him, he would’ve shown up sometime this year. He would’ve done something,” Greene replied when asked if Jones, Zombo, Walden or So’oto might emerge. Then, he added, “Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t given up on my kids that I have.” For that hope to be realized, Greene’s “kids” will have to put the offseason to excellent use. Meanwhile, Smith also stands to benefit from another year in the system after impressing as a rookie. Whether he can take his game to the next level if given the chance to assume Hawk’s starting role is vital to improving the league’s worst-ranked defense.

Next: Defensive backs.

– Jason Wilde

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