The Packers have made a number of changes and additions at the Inside Linebacker position this offseason, promising that the position will see some of the fiercest competition in training camp come August. Although Desmond Bishop seems all but a lock to start at inside linebacker this year, A. J. Hawk’s position is not so secure. Two questions will be settled on the field in camp this year: who will start opposite Bishop and which players will fill out whatever spots remain on the 53 man roster. Although a constant on the defense, A. J. Hawk’s 2011 season certainly wasn’t the best. Says Tyler Dunne,
the man in the middle also regressed in 2011 -- A.J. Hawk. The former fifth overall pick didn't have any interceptions, any forced fumbles and wasn't always reliable against the run.This fact wasn’t lost on Thompson, McCarthy, and company, who picked up Terrell Manning and gave Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore some time at ILB away from their usual OLB during OTAs. However, one major factor could still be on Hawk’s side as training camp approaches. As D.J. Smith himself acknowledged, Hawk carries major leadership responsibilities on the defensive side of the ball. In an interview, Smith explained:
You can say it's kind of minor, but it's kind of a big difference," Smith said. "It's still a middle linebacker, but one position (Hawk's) has more responsibility than the other. When it comes to A.J.'s spot, he's the signal-caller. He's the guy that runs the show. He's the quarterback of the whole thing.In other words, talent and playmaking contributions are not the sole determining factors deciding who will start next to Bishop come September. Like all other position battles, this won’t be resolved on paper in July; we will have to wait and see throughout camp to determine whether or not Hawk will keep his current position on the team. As for the remaining spots on the roster, I expect D. J. Smith to retain a role as backup and I predict he will see significant action during the season, --all this assuming the Packers decide that Hawk is the best choice as a starter, and they may very well not take that position--and Rob Francois should also have little trouble retaining his role as well. In all likelihood, the Packers will only keep 4 inside linebackers, meaning Terrell Manning will face a steep, uphill battle to make the 53 man roster,
*Edit: Manning's packers.com bio only has information up until 2010, which mistakenly led me to assume that he had not played since then. I will be sure to check multiple sources in the future. Many thanks to Matt for pointing this out.