Green Bay Packers Unit Grades, Part VI: Inside Linebackers
The Green Bay Packers changed from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense in 2009. Much of the reason for this was attributed to the deep talent at the second level of the defense.
The move was risky without well-established players at outside linebacker, a key spot in the scheme. However, with weakside linebacker A.J. Hawk moving to the middle and a glut of depth, there was no lack of ability on the inside.
Strangely enough, the inside was not a strength of the defense, as you will see from the individual grades below (which as always are weighted based on expectations) as well as my analysis of the outside linebackers and pieces in this series on other units:
Nick Barnett: C+
Barnett had been a six-year starter since being drafted in the first round in 2003, and his change of responsibilities from the Mike of a 4-3 to inside in a 3-4 were minimal. Hence, he was being relied upon to be the unit's best player as he had been most of his career.
However, while Barnett led the team in tackles (82), assists (23), and was second to Clay Matthews in sacks (4.0), he had no passes defensed, interceptions, or fumbles forced. Barnett was expected to be the unit's best player, and was instead solid but unspectacular.
A.J. Hawk: C
Hawk is the Packers leading tackler since being drafted in 2006. Yet far too often he is the target for the aspersions of fans, both cheering for and against the Packers.
One thing frequently said about him is that he is slow. This is simply not true: Green Bay had him clocked at around 4.5 in the 40 when they drafted him, and some sources have him as even better than that.
Aside from racial stereotypes, there are other factors for his perception as inadequate:
As the fifth pick in the draft, much has been expected of him. His performance has been one of a solid starter and not the stud one would hope to get that high in the draft.
He played out of position for nearly two seasons. He is a more natural mike in a 4-3, he was forced to play the weakside because incumbent middle linebacker Barnett did not want to be moved. When Barnett went down in 2008 and Hawk was moved to the inside, his play improved.
This was what made 2009 a year to watch for Hawk, as in the 3-4 he was moved inside. While he was selected as an alternate to the Pro Bowl in 2009 (and got to play because there were a couple linebackers who did not participate), there was nothing to rave about for him: 67 tackles, 22 assists, a sack, four passes defensed, and two interceptions (returns of 27 and 15 yards) but no fumbles forced. He had just two tackles in the playoffs.
Brandon Chillar: B
Note: Chillar, while spending some time at outside linebacker, is listed here because he was on the depth chart for the inside as well and this list is not as long—i.e. it worked better for spacing. While he was not projected to start before the inception of the season, he was originally brought in as a free agent for just that purpose, and is graded with a bit higher expectations than any other reserve linebacker.
Chillar played in 12 games and officially started four because he was used regularly in packages for his coverage skills (eight passes defensed in 2008). He finished the season with 32 tackles, 10 assists, two sacks, and a pass defensed, and he had four tackles in the playoff game in Arizona.
Desmond Bishop: B
Like Chillar, Bishop provided depth for both the inside and the outside. The hard-hitting linebacker was active for all 16 games but had no starts, amassing 18 tackles, 11 assists, and a fumble forced—not bad for a late sixth-round pick, even with two previous years of experience.
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