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Young Depth Spawns Confidence for Packers Inside Linebackers

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Young Depth Spawns Confidence for Packers Inside Linebackers

Losing a pair of key contributors in one offseason might shake the foundation of most NFL positional groups, but if you ask general manager Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy about the Packers inside linebacker group post-Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith, you'll get nothing but quiet confidence.

The emergence of the young players down the depth chart could very well be the reason why the Packers leading men are easily brushing off the losses.

"Just a lot of different things," Thompson said Tuesday when asked about why Bishop was released. "Speaks to the growth of our depth at the position."

A day later, McCarthy took the conversation at the position one step further, calling Green Bay's depth at inside linebacker "as good" as the Packers have had under the eighth-year head coach.

"I’d say 2010 was a really good group," McCarthy said Wednesday. "This is a group that’s very competitive."

Early returns at training camp help provide the evidence for Thompson's and McCarthy's claims.

Behind presumed starters A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, the Packers have seen young backups such as Terrell Manning, Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington rise to the challenge of increased roles.

Seemingly each day the Packers have taken the practice field since the start of camp, one of the three inside linebackers has made a noteworthy play for the defense.

Manning, a fifth-round pick of the Packers in 2012, has shown interior blitzing skills and a taste for hitting anyone in front of him. His downhill and attacking style could make him an ideal candidate to replace much of what the rough-and-tough Bishop brought to the table, especially against the run and as an A-gap and cross blitzer.

Lattimore missed the start of camp with an illness, but even McCarthy has commented that the former undrafted free agent and outside linebacker convert has provided  "a number of flash plays" since returning. Even if he's a limited participant on defense, Lattimore has a chance to reassume a key special teams role in 2013.

And Barrington has made his own distinct impression, especially when he leveled receiver Jeremy Ross early on in camp. The big hit drew the ire of the injury-cautious McCarthy afterwards, but the Packers coach said Wednesday that he appreciated the reckless side of the 2013 seventh-round pick. At first glance, it would appear the Packers might have secured a bigger, more athletic version of D.J. Smith in the former South Florida linebacker.

While training camp is still in its infant stages, it's looking more and more clear that Thompson made what originally appeared to be difficult decisions on Bishop and Smith with the forward-looking projections that his youngsters down the depth chart would take the opportunity and run.

If recent history is any indication, the Packers may have to lean on one of the raw inside linebackers at some point in 2013.

Green Bay has seen at least one starting inside linebacker go down with injury in each of the three seasons. In each case, the Packers received surprisingly good play from the backup, whether it was Bishop in 2010, Rob Francois in 2011 or Smith in 2012.

Francois, the elder statesman of the backup group, would figure to get the first crack at replacing either Hawk or Jones should injury strike in 2013. But it's certainly possible that continued progression from a player like Manning or Lattimore would make such a decision difficult on McCarthy.

The Packers obviously liked Manning coming out of North Carolina State in 2012, as Thompson moved up in the fifth round to ensure his selection. While a stomach illness during training camp last August all but wrecked his chances of making an impact as a rookie, he's now healthy and a year older and wiser in Dom Capers' defense.

Lattimore is just as intriguing, especially given his background. A college defensive end, Lattimore originally made the transition to outside linebacker before the Packers shifted him inside. His athletic ability has occasionally shined on special teams. Sound familiar? Jones took a similar path to the starting lineup last season.

The Packers would probably rather have Barrington marinate on special teams before thinking about giving him snaps on defense, but his athletic profile is certainly enticing for a team lacking explosion on the inside.

While the early returns have been encouraging, the Packers will now want to see flash plays on the practice field translate into productive moments in live-game settings. There's a big difference between blowing up a bottom-of-the-roster scrub outside the Hutson Center and making that same play when the preseason lights come on next week.

However, there's enough confidence coming out of Packers headquarters to believe that earlier worries about the inside linebacker position minus Bishop and Smith might be overblown.

The NFL is a young man's game, but it's also a healthy man's game. The Packers now have three young and healthy options who are making the most out of their newly acquired opportunities, at least early on.

Thompson would probably tell you he saw this emergence of depth coming all along.

Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at zachkruse2@gmail.com.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (25) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

packsmack25's picture

I loved Desmond Bishop, but let's not pretend he was Patrick Willis. Good player for sure, but not that hard to replace. Should be pretty easy for one of these guys to make an equal impact.

Stroh's picture

Manning, Manning, Manning... All together now! Love this guy. He's similar to Bishop in run support and aggressiveness, but is a slightly more athletic version of Bish.

Al Fresco's picture

If this team can have an AJ Hawk as one of its starters, talent wise that tell's me all that I need to know. Looks like teams will have a field day running the ball for those first down plays. Just like last year, nothing changed.

Beep's picture

I'll believe this "depth" when we can hold Adrian Petersen under 100 yards and one of our LB has 90 tackles on the season.

redlights's picture

Fair enough. An improved DLine will take pressure off the LB's. I'd rather have the DLine make the tackles instead of the LB's, so I'm not sure that 90 tackles is an end-all stat.

PackerBacker's picture

Actually, I'd give All Day 100 yards every game. The truth is that the Queens need him to have 150 to win any game.

hayward4president's picture

I don't care what the name on the jersey is ....I just wanna see someone make plays!

Ranch Tooth's picture

Don't know what you have until you play these young guys. We'll know for sure towards the end of the season.

JakeK's picture

B. Jones and AJ are the starters. ... After that you have a 5th rounder, a 7th rounder and 2 UDFAs. ... That list of ILBs is not going to put any fear in any opposing NFL team.... Face it, there's a good chance most of this group will not even be around in 2014.

Bearmeat's picture

That's just not accurate. Look at the list of starters on NFL teams and the rounds they were drafted in.

For every Ray Lewis or Patrick Willis there are 10 Desmond Bishops and Brad Jones. And those guys often turn out to be very effective players.

Plus, mediocre play at ILB in the 3/4 can be disguised MUCH easier than at DL/OLB/CB/S.

Evan's picture

Do team scouting reports really list the round the player was drafted instead of their name? Seems odd.

Jamie's picture

That's apparently all that's on it.

JakeK's picture

Thompson eventually always goes to the top of the draft (rds. 1-3) to shore up weaknesses. ... The OL with Bulaga & Sherrod, OLB with Perry, and most recently at RB with Lacy. ... He'll do it at ILB (and safety & WR) next year.

Inside & Outside .... Obiozor, Chillar, Havner, Walden, Zombo, Bishop, DJ Smith, So'oto. ... All could still be playing for GB ... They aren't.

PackerBacker's picture

In that case the best ILB we've ever had should be the one picked with the 5th pick of the draft, right?
Wait, everybody doesn't like that guy? Huh.

JakeK's picture

It's called "a swing and a miss". ... unfortunately.

Stroh's picture

"Inside & Outside …. Obiozor, Chillar, Havner, Walden, Zombo, Bishop, DJ Smith, So’oto. … All could still be playing for GB … They aren’t."

And not a one of them will be missed! The highest ANY of them was drafted was Bishop in the 5th. So your worried that our current players are less than this motley crew? Ridiculous!!

JakeK's picture

They're not "less", they're exactly the same. ... They won't be on GB's roster in possibly 2014 or 2015. ... To become elite again, GB needs to minimize their weak areas. It won't happen with some of the riff-raff Thompson has been bringing in. (See list above)

Srohn, you just don't get this, do you? ... Better players = Better team.

Stroh's picture

So in other words your gripping cuz we let a bunch of stiff go, for some young blood who are only getting better! I'll make that deal every day and twice on Sundays.

JakeK's picture

BTW, Bishop was drafted in the 6th round.... Accuracy always. Try it.

Steven's picture

@ jakek and Bishop (the 6th rounder) was a hell of a player before being injured. You do not have to be selected high to be a great player. Hell Tom Brady v.s. jamarcus Russel is a dam good example. Its called not being dumb, try it

nick perry's picture

I agree Steven. James Harrison was cut 2 or 3 times before finally latching on with the Steelers. There's hundreds of success stories in the NFL of players that were late rounders or UDFA.

Skippy's picture

Of course there are late round picks who do well. I can't see where anyone has said otherwise. But the truth still is that the overwhelming majority of the best players in the NFL are drafted early. It's always been that way.

Al Fresco's picture

Not to mention a player who is drafted late round and not given a chance due to those in front of him, get's cut, goes to a team in need and has a fine career. Happens all the time.

Steven's picture

Agreed. I can't believe the jags cut Harris, or the Texans cutting Williams . Oh well there losses.

Lucky953's picture

The Packers are not likely to get "dominant" ILB play this year. Can they get "improved"? Absolutely. I think a healthy Nick Perry cuts down the field enough that the ILBs will be making more tackles. I think we'll see an improved DL, with fewer blockers getting to our "second level". Sure, it'd be great to have a "playmaker" ILB, but don't see it happening. It's going to be a position of relative weakness, but not a fatal weakness, given points above and additionally, growth from the safeties, which I actually feel pretty confident about.

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