In the seventh in a series of position-by-position looks at the Packers’ personnel entering the 2011 offseason, we analyze Green Bay’s linebacker situation.
Updated Thursday, March 3, 12:24 p.m. ET
Overview: Despite losing starters Nick Barnett and Brad Jones and veteran reserves Brandon Chillar and Brady Poppinga with season-ending injuries in 2010, the Packers’ LB corps held up quite well. LOLB Clay Matthews was a Pro Bowl ball of fire from the get-go, charging out of the gate with six sacks in the first two games, and ILBs Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk were extremely solid all season against both the run and pass (a combined four interceptions for 63 yards and a TD and 18 passes defensed).
The defense didn’t miss a beat when Hawk replaced Barnett as the defensive signalcaller in the nickel a month into the season. With Hawk on the books for a guranteed $10 million base salary for 2011, the Packers released the former first-round draft pick March 2 only to re-sign him less than 24 hours later. Undrafted rookie Frank Zombo and waiver pickup Erik Walden combined to do a surprisingly solid job replacing Jones on the right side, although the Packers would love to get more of a consistent pass rush opposite Matthews moving forward. LB coaches Winston Moss (inside) and Kevin Greene (outside) deserve major kudos for their work with this group.
Clay Matthews: Pro Football Weekly’s Defensive MVP registered 17 sacks counting the playoffs (13½ in the regular season) and had to be accounted for all the time, which opened up more opportunities for other Packers defenders. Matthews was magnificent all season despite early hamstring issues and a sore shin until mid-December. With his unrivaled relentlessness and work ethic, he has become a bona fide superstar after only two seasons.
Desmond Bishop: Bishop went from wanting to be traded before the season started to signing a four-year, $19 million contract extension as he blossomed in his role as a full-fledged starter after Barnett went down for the count. Considered to be the team’s most instinctive defender, he had three sacks and was the second-leading tackler with 121. He also has a real nasty streak that carried over to the rest of the unit.
A.J. Hawk: Hawk had a team-leading 134 tackles and tied for the team lead in interceptions among linebackers with three. Tremendously poised in the heat of battle, he just kept getting better as far as recognizing schemes and grew as a leader in the locker room. It is worth noting, though, that a lot of his tackles were downfield.
Nick Barnett: Barnett was on the books for two more years with a hefty salary but has finished two of the last three seasons on injured reserve. Barnett was off to a good start before suffering a season-ending wrist injury in Week Four. Extremely physical, he’s an effective blitzer and is the team’s fastest inside ’backer. But he isn’t nearly as good in coverage as Hawk.
Brad Jones: In the six games in which he played before going on injured reserve in late October with a shoulder injury, Jones did not have a sack, interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery. Jones possesses decent leverage and uses his hands well, but he could have a very tough time winning the starting ROLB job back from either Zombo or Walden.
Brandon Chillar: The versatile Chillar, who is considered the unit’s best ’backer in coverage, suffered a shoulder injury in Week 12 at Atlanta and went on injured reserve two days later. His numbers were very mediocre before going down for the count and is far from a lock to return next season.
Nick Zombo: An undrafted rookie, Zombo became a key cog in the defense, registering four sacks, six tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles. Smart and tough, he came back from a prolonged knee injury late in the season to register the Packers’ only sack in the Super Bowl and justify strong consideration for a starting job next season, his occasional struggles in space notwithstanding.
Erik Walden: Best remembered for his all-world performance in the regular-season finale against the Bears that propelled the Packers into the playoffs (12 tackles, 2½ sacks, five QB hits and three tackles for loss), Walden proved to be an exceptional pickup off the waiver wire in late October by Ted Thompson. Walden started five games (two regular-season games plus three playoff games) down the stretch before sitting out the Super Bowl with an ankle injury. He definitely looks like a keeper, even though Zombo is more stout at the point of attack.
Brady Poppinga: Poppinga had one sack in limited action before suffering a season-ending injury in Week Six. The odds of him returning are less than 50-50.
Matt Wilhelm: Signed off the street in late October, Wilhelm became a very reliable special-teamer, despite the fact he had a terrible penalty late in the Week 12 loss at Atlanta that helped set up the Falcons’ game-winning field goal. Like Poppinga, his future looks shaky in Green Bay.
Diyral Briggs: Another wavier pickup in late October, Briggs made his presence felt on special teams but had scant playing time otherwise.
Robert Francois: Francois spent the first six games on the practice squad before being activated in Week Seven. Able to play both inside and outside, he made one start late in the season against the Giants and replaced Walden in the second half of the NFC title game after Walden hurt his ankle. His versatility will at least earn him a chance to make the roster.
Bottom Line: Matthews outside and Bishop and Hawk inside provide a rock-solid foundation at linebacker. Hawk's re-signing might not bode too well for Barnett.