Time for clichéd exercise: Quick, name the best inside linebacker on the Packers… I’ll wait.
There’s no shortage of candidates with seven of them on the roster.
I’m assuming you and I had the same player in mind. Desmond Bishop. When healthy, he brings a physical presence not exhibited by the other linebackers on the team and might have had the best performance of any defensive player in Super Bowl XLV when he had eight tackles, including three for a loss and a fumble recovery.
The only problem with Bishop is the “when healthy” caveat. After tearing a hamstring in the first preseason game last season, he was lost for the year and placed on injured reserve.
For those looking at the glass half full, Bishop will have more than a year to recover by the time the 2013 regular season opens in September. That gives him a good chance to get back to full strength and up to speed.
But there are no guarantees. However unfortunate it would be, there’s always the possibility that Bishop won’t be the same player he once was. That’s part of the reason the Packers have made sure they have other options at the position, an insurance policy in case Bishop doesn’t return to form.
The same goes for D.J. Smith. Seeing as his knee injury occurred at midseason, his timeframe for recovery is even smaller, perhaps making him a candidate to open the season on the PUP list.
While the Packers did little in the way of courting other teams’ free agents this offseason, they did make three transactions ensuring that their depth at inside linebacker was not compromised.
First they re-signed Rob Francois, an unremarkable move that maintained said depth. Then they came to an agreement with A.J. Hawk’s camp that made sure the former first-round pick’s job was secure in Green Bay.
Finally, they re-signed Brad Jones, the player who exceeded expectations while filling in for Bishop and Smith in 2012. Jones received starter’s money from the Packers, and it’s hard to believe he will be relegated to the sidelines while pulling that kind of paycheck.
Add in Terrell Manning and Jamari Lattimore at the position, and the Packers have more inside linebackers than they know what to do with.
None of the aforementioned inside ‘backers inspire boatloads of optimism, or at least they have yet to do so: Bishop and Smith are injury question marks. Hawk can’t make impact plays. Francois and Lattimore are special teams players.
There’s a glimmer of hope with players like Jones and Manning that they’ll develop into something more, but they haven’t done anything special thus far in their careers.
The worst part of the situation is that the Packers have invested so much into a mediocre group of inside linebackers, they’ve essentially prevented themselves from potentially improving the position outside of the late rounds of the NFL Draft.
The combined salary cap figures for the seven inside linebackers currently on the roster is nearly $15 million for 2013, and the only ones whose contracts expire in 2013 are Francois and Lattimore.
Ted Thompson might subscribe to a “Best Player Available” mantra in public during his press conferences, but it’s very difficult to see the Packers selecting an inside linebacker, no matter how good, during the first round or two of April’s Draft simply because of the numbers game at the position.
The first few rounds represent the best opportunity to improve the caliber of player at inside linebacker, and the chances of the Packers doing so is slim.
Adding another inside linebacker in the first round, for example, would challenge the Packers to effectively manage their salary cap while still saving money for other positions on their roster.
The Packers figure to trim the fat eventually. Maybe a year from now Hawk becomes expendable. And maybe they let Francois and Manning walk away in free agency.
But that does little in the way of improving the inside linebacking corps in 2013.
Brian Carriveau is the author of “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@example.com.