So far this week, we've watched highlight videos of A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, discussed why the highlights of the two were different, and pondered what A.J. Hawk might need to do about it. (We also discussed Johnny Jolly and why his story is a good one, but that was a carryover from last week and really doesn't count.) But I left the end of the second Hawk piece unresolved, wondering who might step up to take Desmond Bishop's place as the team's playmaking middle linebacker.
Technically, there are three candidates. Realistically, there are probably only two, starting with the recently re-signed Brad Jones. The former Colorado Buffalo started ten games last season and racked up 56 solo tackles and two sacks, the most he's had in either category since he had 26 and four as a rookie. For good measure, he knocked down four passes and forced a fumble. Not bad.
At 6'3" and 242 pounds, Jones has the kind of physical tools that make us normal human beings jealous. (No seriously, just look at his splash picture on his profile page at Packers.com. He's a big dude.) He does miss some tackles, but according to the analysts at ProFootballFocus.com, he could be a rising star this year. Not just for the Packers, either. They think he could be one of the better young linebackers in the NFL. Why? The versatility he showed after stepping into the starting lineup.
What made him impressive [last season] is that he could play all aspects of the game at a decent level. His presence in the run game was felt right away, with a tackle for a loss in his first quarter of action and a forced fumble just two weeks later. He managed four more tackles for losses over the following three games. What was possibly his most impressive game against the run was in Week 15 against Chicago where he had four tackles for no gain over the course of 20 carries. While the entire team struggled to stop the quarterback from running in the playoffs, Jones did have two quarterback tackles that made the offense fail to convert on third down.
But Jones isn't the only possible starter next to A.J. Hawk in the middle. (If you'll remember three paragraphs ago, I said there were at least two, possibly three. Go look. I'll wait here.) He may also face some competition for second year man Terrell Manning. He was more or less a no-show in 2012 after battling ulcerative colitis in the pre-season. But after seeing a bit of time on special teams last year, he's looking for more this time around, telling Mike Spofford of Packers.com "I know what it takes to come back from an injury. I know what it takes to fight back from the bottom. So when I get to the top and taste victory, I want to stay there."
To taste that victory, though, he won't just have to overcome Brad Jones. He'll have to fend off Jamari Lattimore, the third year prospect out of Middle Tennessee State. Lattimore and Manning are nearly identical physically (both listed at 6'2" and 237 pounds) and both have spent their early careers buried on the depth chart and fighting for time on special teams. He's made plays in the past at middle linebacker, (although it was only in training camp, as reported by Fox Sports Wisconsin), and he can definitely get it done on special teams. For what it's worth, in Spofford's article about Terrell Manning he points out that it was Lattimore and not Manning that got first crack at the first team defense when Brad Jones took a breather during OTA's.
So who's it going to be? The smart money (and the Packers' money after his off-season contract extension) is on Brad Jones. He has the most experience and has done it before. But we've seen in the past (with A.J. Hawk, oddly enough) that the Packers aren't afraid to have one guy be the "starter" only in name and end up playing other guys a lot more. If that's the case this year, Manning and Lattimore might have a shot. And if they make plays when they get their shot, there's no telling what could happen.