The Green Bay Packers watched the top-two inside linebacker prospects come off the board before the 21st pick in the first round, and then avoided the position altogether over their nine total picks in the 2014 NFL draft.
For better or worse, the Packers will enter next season with the status quo at inside linebacker.
General manager Ted Thompson almost certainly would have pulled the trigger on either C.J. Mosley of Alabama or Ryan Shazier of Ohio State had the opportunity presented itself in the first round. Both players have the speed and playmaking to be an immediate upgrade, and the value for either player would have been fantastic at No. 21 overall.
Of his nine picks, four came on defense. And not one of the four was an inside linebacker.
After missing out on both Mosley and Shazier, Thompson went with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at No. 21—which provided an accomplished player at another position of major need.
"There were good players that were taken off," Thompson said, via Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal. "You start wondering what's going to happen. We feel ecstatic, though."
Many have lambasted Thompson's decision to not pick a player at inside linebacker. I wondered aloud if Thompson was making the same mistake at inside linebacker in 2014 as he did at safety a year earlier.
The situations feel somewhat similar. After the Packers avoided adding a safety in April of 2013, the three holdovers expected to solidify the position—Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian—all regressed. Green Bay's defense didn't get a single interception or forced fumble from the position. Only Burnett survived the disaster.
At inside linebacker, the Packers return an underwhelming group consisting of A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington.
Hawk is steady but mostly unspectacular. He knows the game inside and out, and his effort from play to play is never under question. But he lacks the top-level speed and physicality of the game's better interior 'backers.
Jones played well late in 2012 but struggled for most of last season. He also missed games because of two different injuries. He's a converted outside linebacker who lacks the instincts and bulk to be a consistent factor from the inside.
The Packers are paying Hawk almost $3 million in 2014, and Jones is entering the second year of a $11.75 million deal he signed last March. Both will be expected to start again in 2014.
Behind Hawk and Jones are two intriguing young players.
Lattimore is back in Green Bay under the restricted tender. He started four games in 2013, impressing with his physicality and play speed against both Cleveland and Baltimore before falling off the map later in the season. He could make a serious run at a starting spot if he gains more consistency and every-down awareness.
Barrington played in seven games but saw only one snap on defense. He could push for playing time if he develops from his rookie to sophomore season.
It's possible Thompson viewed the position as less of an immediate need than many outsiders. Or, after Shazier and Mosley went off the board, Thompson simply didn't grade any of the remaining prospects as starter-quality players in Green Bay's defense.
The latter seems more probable.
Inside linebacker was arguably one of the weakest positions in the 2014 draft, with a big gap between the top two players (Mosley, Shazier) and the consensus third (Wisconsin's Chris Borland)—and an even bigger gap between Borland and the next tier.
|3-4 Inside Linebackers Taken in the 2014 NFL Draft|
|13 total players|
The San Francisco 49ers took Borland four picks after Preston Brown went to the Buffalo Bills and eight spots before Green Bay's pick in the third round. The next 3-4 inside linebacker didn't come off the board until the 126th overall pick, when the New Orleans Saints selected Cal's Khairi Fortt at No. 126 overall.
In the fifth round, Florida State'a Telvin Smith and LSU's Lamin Barrow were picked before Green Bay came back on the clock. UCLA's Jordan Zumwalt went to Pittsburgh a round later—again, before the Packers' pick.
Big names such as Stanford's Shayne Skov and Michigan State's Max Bullough went undrafted, further highlighting how poor most of the NFL determined this year's class of inside linebackers to be. Outside of Mosley and Shazier, the majority of the remaining players possess severe flaws that will likely keep them from being high-quality starters at the next level.
When the board fell the way it did, the Packers stayed true to theirs and avoided reaching for a prospect at such a weak position. Fighting mediocrity with mediocrity is the surest way to stay mediocre.
But now the Packers must deal with the reality of an unimproved position group in the middle of their defense.
Hawk and Jones only have a brief spell of playing well next to each other in the base defense. Neither is particularly efficient at causing turnovers or making big plays, likely because both are only average athletes at a position that more often than not requires elite size-speed ratios.
Lattimore and Barrington have attractive upsides. With continued development, both have the makeup to become serviceable starters inside. But keep in mind, Lattimore is a former undrafted free agent, and Barrington was selected with the 232nd pick in 2013. There's a limit to what you can reasonably expect from the pair.
The Packers will likely enter next season with confidence in their personnel along the defensive line, at edge-rushers and at cornerback. Safety took a step forward with Clinton-Dix's arrival. Inside linebacker remains the biggest question mark.
Getting Mosley or Shazier would have answered those questions. When two other 3-4 teams grabbed them first, Thompson avoided wasting a pick on a lesser player who might struggle to ever win a job over Hawk or Jones.
Not every hole can be filled in one draft. The Packers will bank on the consistency of Hawk, better health for Jones and development in Lattimore and Barrington to solve the inside linebacker deficiency from the 2013 season.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.
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