When the Green Bay Packers didn't address inside linebacker during the recently completed NFL Draft, that fact could be interpreted in a number of different ways.
One is that after Ryan Shazier and C.J. Mosley came off the board in the first round, there were exceedingly few inside linebackers projected to make an impact in professional football and worthy of being selected.
Another is that the Packers might feel comfortable with incumbent starters A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.
While a legitimate argument could be made that Hawk and Jones have provided the Packers with merely mediocre production the past few seasons, it's not like the position was in dire straits like safety before the Packers made Ha Ha Clinton-Dix the 21st overall selection.
After making 118 tackles, a career-high five sacks and playing in all 16 games for the seventh time in eight seasons, Hawk is arguably coming off the best season of his career.
The reality is Hawk is a leader, consistent, reliable, and his job is most likely safe for at least the 2014 season. It's the spot next to Hawk in the starting lineup that could be up for grabs.
When healthy, Jones is a competent NFL inside linebacker. Unfortunately, he missed four full games last season due to hamstring and ankle injuries.
In 2013, Jones made 84 tackles, three sacks, forced one fumble but didn't deflect a single pass—what could be considered pedestrian statistics for a player considered to be a starter and being paid like one after signing a three-year contract averaging $3.75 million last offseason.
Perhaps one could read into the Packers not adding any signifcant additions to the inside linebacker position beyond undrafted free agency to mean the Packers feel good about some of the younger players already on their roster—namely Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington.
Jones might get the first crack at a starting gig because of his experience, he has yet to play well enough to be granted any guarantees.
As Organized Team Actitvities (OTAs) begin this week in Green Bay, an opportunity has presented itself to Lattimore and Jones to potentially earn more playing time in 2014.
Green Bay showed some committment to Lattimore earlier this offseason by offering him a right-of-first-refusal tender. Whereas the Packers allowed fellow restricted free agent M.D. Jennings test the open market and sign with the Chicago Bears, Lattimore wasn't allowed to slip through the cracks.
Lattimore has been a special teams staple for years in Green Bay, going so far as to be honored as the unit's postseason captain in 2012. But the door is open to an even bigger role if he can seize it.
Making the transition from outside to inside linebacker for the first time in his career last season, Lattimore took over for an injured Jones at several points in 2013 and made 35 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble, all career highs.
At times, Lattimore appeared to be a player with a surprising amount of playmaking potential and at others he looked undisciplined and out of position, which probably shouldn't come as a surprise given he was in the first year of a position switch.
With another year of experience under his belt, Lattimore has a chance to receive more consistent playing time at inside linebacker and should be highly motivated to do so. As part of his tender offered by the Packers, Lattimore received just a one-year contract, so he'll be seeking more long-term stability when he reaches unrestricted free agency next offseason.
Barrington, meanwhile, enters his sophomore season in the NFL with loads of potential but still plenty to prove.
Just as he was starting to carve out a role on special teams last season, playing in seven games and making three tackles, a hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve, ending his season.
Unfortunately for Barrington, fellow inside linebackers Jones, Lattimore and Rob Francois all also missed time at various points during the season, which could have opened the door to increased playing time on defense had he been available.
Players entering Year 2 in the NFL are frequently cited as making some of the biggest improvements of their career, and Barrington would certainly stand to benefit if he can make such a leap.
On paper, inside linebacker looks to be one of the weaker positions on the Packers roster. It's up to Barrington and Lattimore to help the inside linebackers either change some minds or simply reinforce the notion that the position is weak.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
Photo: Linebacker Jamari Lattimore by Larry Radloff Photography.
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