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A.J. Hawk has long been viewed as vital to the defense by the coaching staff

LBs: Packers offseason by position

Players under contract
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
55
Desmond Bishop
ILB
6-2
238
28
6
California
50
A.J. Hawk
ILB
6-1
242
29
7
Ohio State
57
Jamari Lattimore
ILB
6-2
237
23
2
Middle Tennessee St.
51
D.J. Smith
ILB
5-11
239
22
2
Appalachian State
56
Terrell Manning
ILB
6-2
237
22
R
North Carolina St.
52
Clay Matthews
OLB
6-3
255
26
4
Southern California
54
Dezman Moses
OLB
6-2
249
24
R
Tulane
52
Nick Perry
OLB
6-3
265
22
R
Southern California
94
Micah Johnson
OLB
6-2
265
24
1
Kentucky
 
Unrestricted free agents
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
93
Erik Walden
OLB
6-2
250
27
5
Middle Tennessee St.
59
Brad Jones
OLB
6-3
242
25
3
Colorado
 
Restricted free agents
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
49
Robert Francois
ILB
6-2
255
27
3
Boston College
58
Frank Zombo
OLB
6-3
254
25
3
Central Michigan

The good news:  Ron Wolf, the sage ex-Packers general manager, used to talk about the importance of having players who “tilt the field” in your favor. Matthews is the definition of such a player. “When Clay Matthews is on the field, we’re a different defense,” coach Mike McCarthy said on multiple occasions last season, including after Matthews had two sacks against Chicago on Dec. 16. “He is clearly one of the best defensive players in the league.” That much is true. Even though the Packers went a surprising 3-1 in the four games Matthews missed with a hamstring injury suffered Nov. 4 against Arizona, Matthews’ mere presence alters how opposing offenses have to approach the Packers. Matthews finished fifth in the NFL in sacks with 13.0 despite missing those four games, then had three more sacks in the playoffs and finished with 14 QB hits and 30 QB hurries in 877 total snaps according to ProFootballFocus.com. Meanwhile, although the loss of Perry to a wrist injury that he suffered in the regular-season opener against San Francisco and eventually required surgery, Moses was a pleasant surprise as an undrafted rookie free agent who showed real potential. He became the latest in a line of outside linebackers of lesser profile who contributed, joining Jones (a seventh-round pick in 2009), Zombo (an undrafted free agent in 2010) and Vic So’oto (an undrafted free agent in 2011). Moses played 504 snaps and recorded four sacks, five QB hits and 12 hurries. Whether he has more staying power than the oft-injured Zombo or the departed So’oto remains to be seen.

“I think every one of my guys improved,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. “I think Clay was a better player this year than he was last year. I think Erik Walden was a better player. I think a guy like Dezman Moses comes out of the blue and he turns out to be a fine player and does some good things. I think they improved this year and they’re going to be so much better next year than they were this year because this position really takes time to grow into. It’s just hard to hit the ground running in this position just being a new kid put in it. It takes a little time to settle in and understand all the little details about the position. Then you can start improving.”

The bad news:  While the injury bug bit every position to an extent, the linebackers bore the brunt of it. In addition to Matthews’ four-game absence and Perry’s season-ending wrist injury on the outside, the unit took huge hits inside, too. The Packers first lost Bishop, arguably the best player on the defense the year before, to a season-ending ruptured hamstring tendon in the Aug. 9 preseason opener in San Diego. The team was fortunate to have Smith, who’d flashed very good potential as a rookie while filling in for Bishop (calf) for a handful of games in 2011, there to step in. Then on Oct. 14, Smith blew out his ACL and was lost for the season. Jones, who made the conversion from outside to inside over the offseason, stepped in and was a godsend, although he was far from perfect. He finished the season as the every-down inside linebacker, staying on the field in nickel and dime situations over Hawk. He was credited with 101 tackles and two sacks in 828 snaps but was also charged with 11 missed tackles by ProFootballFocus.com.

How much did the group miss Bishop? “Can’t speculate,” replied inside linebackers coach Winston Moss. “We didn’t have Desmond this year, but I thought A.J. stepped up and gave winning efforts all year, and I thought Brad Jones stepped in and was impressive all year. D.J. Smith had about five-and-a-half games and he was productive. You can only coach the guys that we have that are healthy. Whenever Desmond comes back in, we’ll accept him and welcome him back in the mix and expect him to pick up right where he left off.”

The big question: It’s becoming an annual discussion: Will the Packers keep Hawk? After the 2010 season, because the final year of his rookie contract called for a $10 million guaranteed salary, the Packers released him only to re-sign him during the brief window of the lockout, giving him a five-year, $33 million deal that contained a guaranteed $10 million up front. After a less-than-stellar 2011 season, many thought GM Ted Thompson would cut his losses. Instead, Hawk returned in 2012 and had a solid season while not playing as much because of the expanded use of the dime package, which kept him on the bench. Hawk played 847 snaps and ended up leading the team in tackles (142) and also had three sacks, but he did not have a single turnover play for the second straight year. Cutting the 29-year-old Hawk would save $5.45 million on the salary cap, but based on how his coaches talk about him, it seems as though he’ll return.

“A.J. Hawk impressed with the consistency, reliability,” Moss said. “He stepped up in point-of-attack tackles. Overall, his production was excellent in a reduction in snap count. … I was fine with his performance. I thought he was consistent, as always. I thought he was disciplined, as always. For the most part, he played all the run fits and handled his gap responsibilities well.”

Offseason outlook:  So much of the Packers’ fate at linebacker depends on health. Will Bishop return to form? In 2011, despite missing three games with a calf injury, Bishop led the Packers with 142 tackles (including a team-best 109 solo) and registered five sacks, good for second-most on the team. He also forced two fumbles, tied for second on the team, and was among the NFL’s best linebackers in tackling efficiency over the 2009 through 2011 span. Playing 1,624 snaps – he didn’t become a full-time starter until Nick Barnett’s 2010 wrist injury opened the door – over those seasons, Bishop missed just 14 tackles by ProFootballFocus.com’s count, ranking him 12th in the NFL among linebackers with one miss per every 16.1 tackle attempt. All that, plus the Packers have to concern themselves with the health of Smith and Perry.

But the uncertainty doesn’t end there. Jones is an unrestricted free agent, and so is Walden. Jones was a core special teams player before being forced into action at inside linebacker, and he may garner a fair amount of interest on the open market. While Walden’s season came to an ignominious end with an embarrassing performance in the playoff loss to the 49ers and he’s unlikely to draw much outside interest, that doesn’t mean the Packers are done with him.

“He’s had some good games, now. He’s had some good games,” Greene said of Walden. “He played well for us. I mean, really played well. He’s had a couple games that we’ve missed on, but every athlete likes to play their best game every game – but the reality is you really can’t. You try to, but some games are really good and some games are great and some games are just kind of average.”

Next: Defensive backs.

– Jason Wilde

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