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 email@example.com.