Having to face Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte twice each season has forced Ted Thompson to stay invested in his linebacker corps over the years. Fortunately, he has been efficient in drafting the position in April, with the depth chart showing three first-rounder-turned-starters. However, after waiting until Day 3 of this past draft to select a linebacker and witnessing the sudden departures of Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith in the offseason, the Packers appear to be a tad shallow at the position.
The lack of depth at outside linebacker and Mike Neal’s struggles as a down lineman prompted the coaching staff to give the four-year veteran a look at linebacker. Neal’s use at linebacker should be strictly situational, as second-year pass rusher Nick Perry accompanies fellow USC product Clay Matthews as a starter. Veteran linebacker Dezman Moses may see some time in the base defense if Perry struggles but don’t expect to see many other faces at the position.
One area where the Packers remain exposed is pass coverage, with both Neal and Perry making the transition away from a three-point stance. At 280-plus pounds, Neal in particular is not accustomed to playing in open space and could be a liability in coverage. The move to linebacker has surely been foreign to the collegiate defensive tackle but it may be his last opportunity to impress a coaching staff that has been very patient with his injury setbacks.
The Packers have two capable inside linebackers in A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones but not a whole lot behind them. Coaches now know what they’re getting in stopgaps Robert Francois and Jamari Lattimore, who would likely be out of the picture if it weren’t for the departures of Bishop and Smith. There is, however, some promise in rookie Sam Barrington and the on-and-off Terrell Manning, who still shows flashes of rawness after being plagued by colitis last training camp.
The Packers have few proven options capable of backfilling for any of the starters, should they go down. Moses is the most tested amongst the backups but would provide little help to Matthews, who has been a one-man show at outside linebacker since helping the defense transition to the 3-4 as a rookie. It’s clear that linebacker won’t be a position of strength in 2013 but hopefully can be as serviceable as the unit from 2010.