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Clay Matthews is clearly the top dog of the linebackers for the Packers, but the major issue is how often will he be on the field. He has had previous issues with hamstring problems and this most recent thumb injury. However, he was back practicing at 100% health today in training camp, which is an excellent sign for the Packers. The other interesting note from Saturday's practice was that Matthews was not rushing from the same side every play in practice today. He was more of a rover and could rush either outside edge. This is the type of thing that opposing offense lineman simply hate. They want to know exactly who is lining up against them and continue to follow the right steps to succeed against that same player. Clay Matthews is the second highest paid Green Bay Packer, behind only quarterback Aaron Rodgers, so it is incredibly important for him to remain healthy and stay on the field as much as possible for this upcoming season.
Secondary to Matthews is the biggest free agent acquisition that Ted Thompson has brought to Green Bay since Charles Woodson back in the 2006 off-season. It is a move that was entirely unexpected and something that Packers fans are very excited about. That move, of course, was the addition of Julius Peppers. It is not entirely certain that Peppers will be playing a set position every play for the Packers either. There have been several rumors this offseason that Peppers will by playing his very own hybrid position, the elephant. This means that Peppers could call defensive assignments and line up as either a rush linebacker or a down defensive lineman. Also, he could move into a position as an inside linebacker and either blitz or play coverage behind. Peppers is a supreme athlete ever since coming out of college and being selected second overall by the Carolina Panthers in the 2002 NFL Draft (the expansion Texans selected David Carr number one). Peppers is a strong veteran that the Packers are excited to use against his former team, the Chicago Bears, and he is looking for a title, which certainly is possible in Green Bay this season.
The next linebacker in order would be former first round pick Nick Perry, but it is difficult to know where he will line up this season. He has only played in 17 of 32 regular season games due to injuries in both of his first two seasons. Having him on the preseason inactive list in training camp is not a good sign because it is reporting he is still dealing with some of the lingering injury problems. Hopefully, Perry will come back and be able to turn this around, but it is too early to know anything for certain.
The next OLB is Mike Neal, who converted to the position last season after being on the defensive line the year before. He had 49 tackles and 5 sacks, both career highs, while learning a new position, so the Packers re-signed him this past off-season. However, the former Purdue Boilermaker also failed the pre-camp physical, which came as a large shock to the team, since he had previously participated in previous organized team activities this year.
Remaining outside linebacker options include Andy Mulumba, who got some playing time during player injuries last season, but still only recorded one sack. The other option is the fourth round draft pick from Arizona State, Carl Bradford. Bradford should take advantage of the opportunity to get on the field a lot during training camp and show the Packers exactly why they spent that pick on him. Bradford did an excellent job this previous season as a Sun Devil and was considered a bit of a hybrid defensive end dubbed "the devil backer." He had 8.5 sacks last year and was first team all Pac-12. Hopefully, the transition to the NFL is a simple one for the young man.
Inside linebackers for the Green Bay Packers are as follows. The top man is the one who has stayed in Green Bay longer than any other linebacker, the former 5th overall selection, A.J. Hawk. Most Packers fans would say that Hawk is just an average linebacker, but he transitioned from 4-3 MLB in college for the Ohio State Buckeyes, to a 4-3 OLB in the Packers old defense, and now back to a 3-4 ILB for the Packers. It takes great mind power to learn and relearn positions that not every player has. He took a pay cut for the team last season and had 5 sacks, 118 tackles, and 1 interception. Hawk is probably a little bit underrated to the level of his performance in Green Bay.
Next would be Brad Jones from the Colorado Buffaloes. He was originally drafted in the 2009 draft as a 7th round pick. He was forced onto the field in the first year of the 3-4 defense, as an outside linebacker, and recorded 4 sacks opposite of Matthews. He came in because of an injury to former Green Bay Packer Aaron Kampman, which feels like a really long time ago. He has since moved to inside linebacker and has been starting there except for during his 4 game injury stint last season, and he still recorded 83 tackles through 12 games.
The player most likely to push Jones for playing time is Jamari Lattimore. Lattimore came in during Jones's injury stint and started those 4 games, and showed improvement against the run, which was a horrible problem for the Packers defense last year. Lattimore should get on the field even more this year and might end up becoming a starter, because this should definitely be considered a training camp battle between the two.
The final two players on the list are Sam Barrington, the 7th round pick last year who only played one defensive snap last year. Barrington will likely catch on with some action as a special teamer. The other player that many Packer fans were surprised to be able to sign as an undrafted free agent is Adrian Hubbard from Alabama. Hubbard might be more of a project, but the Packers would love to see exactly what he can do in their scheme, and that's why they had to bring him on board.
The linebacker position is always one of the most important of any defense, but when in a 3-4 defense, the position is absolutely critical. Only time will tell if the Packers have made the right choices at who they will play there during this season. But it will be great to watch them go after the quarterback and hopefully stop the run better than last season.