GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy wasn’t handing out starting jobs Monday.
But while the Green Bay Packers coach may not be ready to say that second-year outside linebacker Frank Zombo is the leader in the clubhouse for the starting job opposite star pass-rusher Clay Matthews, the preponderance of evidence would indicate that Zombo currently leads Erik Walden and Brad Jones in one of the few competitions in training camp.
Zombo, who started nine games last season, including Super Bowl XLV, got the starting nod in Saturday night’s preseason opener at Cleveland and worked with the No. 1 defense in practice again on Monday. But McCarthy downplayed the significance of it.
“The rotation of Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and even Brad Jones, I think all of those guys have done very well,” McCarthy said after practice. “When I look at that position, I’m more interested in the balance between the outside linebacker position and special teams. We’re going to play a lot of different sub packages throughout the season. That’s where those reps among those players will definitely balance out. As far as who you want to put on (top of) the depth chart, we’re going to line up with 11 players.”
And it’s looking more and more like Zombo will be one of those 11 starters when the regular season begins Sept. 8 against the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field.
“It’s still a competition and that’s how we’re attacking it,” Zombo said Monday. “I think Coach (McCarthy) has complete confidence in all three of us. One person’s going to have to separate themselves from the pack.”
Zombo could do that with his pass-rush ability. He finished last season with five sacks, including his takedown of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLV – the Packers’ only sack of the game. He spent the lockout working out with fellow Michigan natives T.J. Lang and Nick McDonald at Dynamic Athletes in Canton, Mich., outside of Detroit, working to improve his speed and endurance in hopes of becoming a more effective rusher.
“I feel like my speed off the ball has greatly increased. I feel more athletic running down the field on kickoffs. I’m really happy with my offseason workouts,” Zombo said. “I felt in great shape in the game and I feel in great shape in practice, even in this heat today.
“Obviously, pass rush is huge for the outside linebacker position. You’ve got to get off the ball, get to the quarterback. Obviously, the dropping aspect (is important, too). There’s a lot that goes into the outside linebacker position. The person who best performs those three things is going to be the guy.”
All three players in the competition have starting experience. Jones started eight games in the second half of 2009 as a rookie seventh-round pick and started five more early last season before a season-ending shoulder injury. Zombo took over after that, but a knee injury shelved him for the final three regular-season games and first three playoff games. In his place, Walden, who had been on the street, started the regular-season finale against Chicago – a game in which he registered three sacks – and the first three playoff games before an ankle injury kept him out of the Super Bowl.
Now, with all three healthy in camp, the coaches had rotated them through with the starters, at least until Monday. We’ll have to wait and see whether Zombo stays with the No. 1 group in practice and starts against Arizona on Friday night.
“I think what we’ve got to do is take a good look at each one of those three guys,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “It’s not going to hurt the continuity of our defense because all three of those guys are going to probably end up playing for us, and we might have certain personnel groups that one guy goes in and plays because he does maybe just a little bit better than the other guy.”
Even with his improved speed off the ball, Zombo’s biggest area of improvement might not be in his legs – it might be in his head. As impressive as it was for him to make the team as an undrafted rookie free agent converting from 4-3 defensive end at Central Michigan to 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL, he figures to be even more effective with a year of experience in Capers’ complex scheme.
“Definitely from a mental aspect now, (I know) more about the defense now, whereas last year being a rookie I was kind of swimming and I didn’t really know what was going on out there – I was just trying to do it by effort, running to the ball,” Zombo said. “Definitely I feel more comfortable, I feel more athletic, and I know my surroundings better, so I feel a lot better.
“That’s how you’ve got to attack it. This is a competitive job. Every day, if I have a day where I slip, I lose sleep over it — I really do. I’m nervous walking into the locker room the next day. I think tha’ts a good mentality to have, every day fighting for your job. Guys who do that and appreciate it will stay around for a long time.
"I don’t want to be the guy out there that’s getting yelled at consistently, There’s going to be some mess-ups, but I try to limit those as much as possible.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.