Linebacker is probably the Packers' most widely varied position. They have big guys. They have little guys. They have fast guys. They have slow guys. I suppose it's the nature of the position, but it sure seems like the Packers employ just about every kind of linebacker there is.
In 2011, it was hard for me to get a good read on exactly how the Packer linebackers were playing. There's no doubt in my mind that the poor play by the defensive line hurt the linebackers in a big way, Clay Matthews particularly. With several upgrades to the defensive line and one big addition to the linebacking corps, it could be a different story this year. But before we get to a point where anyone can talk about how the linebackers are playing, we need to narrow down who's actually going to be on the team. So who will it be? For an exciting change, let's examine them alphabetically by last name. How fun and different!
Desmond Bishop - Previously just a training camp standout, Bishop has become a reliable starter. From my perspective, he's one of those guys who (cliche alert) always plays bigger than he is. He's only 238 pounds, but he looks a lot larger, perhaps due to his old school giant shoulder pads. Bishop showed surprising pass rushing ability last year, racking up five sacks. I look for him to have another solid year this year in his second season as a full-time starter.
Robert Francois - Francois still wears number 49, a fairly telling reminder of his history as a borderline practice squad/roster bubble player. Unheralded roots or not, he's managed to stick around and contribute, even coming up with two big interceptions last season. Francois started two games last year due to injuries to Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk, but will probably be back to a backup and special teams role this year.
A.J. Hawk - Out of all the Packer linebackers, Hawk probably has the most to prove this year. He signed a relatively large contract extension last year, then responded with a career low 84 tackles, just 1.5 sacks, and no interceptions or forced fumbles. Clearly the Packers are looking for more from one of their two starting inside linebackers, especially considering how well D.J. Smith played last year in Hawk's absence. The thing is, Hawk has never been a big play guy. He's never had more than 3.5 sacks in a year, he hasn't forced a fumble since 2007, and he's managed only eight interceptions in six years of professional football. Asking him to do more could be a bit much, but he surely can do better than last year. Perhaps now that he has a lot less hair, he'll be faster. Or something.
Brad Jones - Brad Jones has one of the most forgettable names on the team, and unfortunately last year he had one of the most forgettable seasons as well. He's never really lived up to his promising rookie campaign, since he simply hasn't been able to stay on the field. Once considered a strong contender to start opposite Clay Matthews, Jones now faces serious competition for his job. Given how often Ted Thompson likes to clean out underperforming players, this could be the time to put up or shut up for Jones.
Jamari Lattimore - An undrafted free agent who made the team last year, Lattimore will probably have to prove himself all over again this season. Unfortunately, that's how it works for guys near the bottom of the roster. Fortunately, with a year in the system already, he'll have a leg up on the younger competition. Lattimore recorded four tackles last year as a part time player, going 10 weeks between tackles number three and four. He was a great pass rusher in college, ranking number two all-time at Middle Tennessee State despite only playing there for three season.
Terrell Manning - A 2012 draft pick, Manning is almost the exact same size as Desmond Bishop (Bishop - 6'2", 238, Manning - 6'2", 237) but doesn't look nearly as big. If he's a comparable player, he'll be a great steal. A relatively versatile player at NC State, he was fourth in tackles and second in sacks his senior year.
Clay Matthews - Matthews' 2011 season proves how overrated the sack stat is: he had a career low in sacks last year, but was among the league leaders in "pressures" according to the people who keep track of those kinds of things. To me, this demonstrates that a pass rusher can still be effective in a variety of ways even if they're not getting all the way to the quarterback. Due to the Packers' anemic pass rush, Matthews faced almost constant double and triple teams, but still managed to pressure the quarterback at nearly league leading rate. That makes me pretty excited to see what he can do if this year's new additions can manage to give him a little help.
Dezman Moses - An undrafted rookie from Tulane, Dezman Moses has been turning heads at practice so far this year. Given that it's currently June and almost a month before training camp, this doesn't necessarily mean a whole lot...but it doesn't necessarily mean nothing either. Moses was about as unknown as a guy could be coming out of college (hooray for being second team all-conference in Conference USA!), but clearly he's doing something right. He'll be an intriguing player to watch throughout the summer.
Nick Perry - Given how much we already know about Nick Perry, there's not much to add here. He'll be expected to be a starter from day one, but he doesn't need to be spectacular. If he can be competent enough to provide a consistent amount of pressure, it will do wonders for easing the load on Clay Matthews. Also, I'm always amazed at how athletic Perry is for his size. He's 6'3" and weighs about 270, but he posted a 38.5" vertical leap at the combine. To put that in perspective, Dwyane Wade is 6'5" and has only about a 36 inch vertical leap...and he's 50 pounds lighter than Perry. To put that in even broader perspective, I'm 6'5" and the last time I measured I had a 28 inch vertical leap, and I'm also 50 pounds lighter than Perry. I don't know what this means, but it's probably better that they're considering Nick Perry ahead of me for the starting outside linebacker spot.
D.J. Smith - Depending on how A.J. Hawk performs early in the season, I think we could see a lot of D.J. Smith. He was a tackling machine in college, and in his limited playing time last year there wasn't any indication he couldn't do the same thing in the NFL. I'm excited to see what he can do after a full offseason of work and more time in the Packers' defensive schemes. He'll be another interesting young player to watch.
Vic So'oto - So'oto made last year's team based largely on a strong performance in a late preseason game, where he had 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown. He was thought to be a potential developmental pass rushing prospect, but didn't record a sack until the final week of the regular season. So'oto is much like Smith in that he'll probably benefit from extended time working in the Packer system. In a non-football note, I'm glad that he goes simply by Vic, because his full name is Vitale Ta'aga Maguali So'oto, which is a bit of a mouthful.
Erik Walden - Like seemingly half the linebackers on the roster, Walden was once rumored to be the frontrunner for the starting outside linebacker spot opposite Clay Matthews, but injuries kept him from fulfilling early promise. He was one of the late season heroes of the 2010 Super Bowl run, recording 11 tackles and three sacks in the final game of the year against Chicago. However, including post season play, he has accounted for just four sacks since that game. Given that the Packers drafted a guy who plays the exact same position he does, Walden will have to show a lot to stick around this year.
Frank Zombo - I could almost copy and paste the first line of Walden's write up and paste it into Zombo's because their stories are quite similar. Zombo fought a lot of injuries last year and really wasn't able to stay on the field often enough to make a significant impact. Now that he's healthy, he'll have to do quite a bit of work to fight off the rookies and other guys fighting for his job. Hopefully he's able to regain his 2010 form and be a solid contributor this year.
Conclusion - There are eleven linebackers on the roster right now, and making a completely uneducated guess, I think the Packers will keep eight or nine. Four (Matthews, Bishop, Perry, and Hawk) figure to be pretty hard locks to make the team, with Smith next in line. If Moses continues his strong play, he'll figure to lock up a spot pretty quickly, leaving maybe two or three spots left for Manning, Walden, Zombo, Jones, Lattimore, Francois, and So'oto. Who will it be? We'll see in the dog days of summer.