No position was more injury-riddled for the Green Bay Packers in 2010 (and there were a lot of them) than at linebacker. Of the 15 Packers who eventually were placed on injured reserve, four of those players, linebackers Nick Barnett, Brandon Chillar, Brad Jones and Brady Poppinga, were all contributors to a 2009 defense that ranked second in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed.
The depth concerns were amplified at outside linebacker, where Jones had been the clear-cut starter in 2009 after taking over for an injured Aaron Kampman. Inside, Barnett and Chillar were only reserves behind A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop and, while Chillar was used in situational packages, he was easier to replace than finding a new starting outside linebacker.
Jones had not shown any signs of a sophomore slump in his five starts in 2010, which included the first two of the season and weeks five through seven. While he did not produce a sack in those five starts after recording four sacks in seven 2009 starts, Jones recorded 27 tackles, including 16 solo. In a Week 7 contest against the Vikings, however, Jones aggravated a shoulder injury suffered in training camp and was shelved for the rest of the season.
Filling in for Jones was little-known Frank Zombo, an undrafted rookie from Central Michigan. After 32 teams, including the Packers, passed over him in seven different rounds, Zombo tore up the 2010 preseason (18 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble) and found himself on the 53-man roster. He then wasted no time getting into the action, recording a sack in Week 1 against the Eagles and again in Week 3 against the Bears. It seemed the Packers had found their answer in Zombo, but a Week 14 knee injury against the Lions sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season, putting the Packers up against the wall to once again strike gold on a seemingly no-name outside linebacker.
This time around it was Erik Walden’s turn to make general manager Ted Thompson look good. A sixth round draft choice by the Cowboys in 2008, Walden saw time on special teams for Dallas and the Dolphins before latching on with the Packers in October, shortly after Jones was lost for the season.
He only started two regular season games, Week 15 in New England and Week 17 against Chicago, but he certainly made them count. In the season’s final week, with the Packers facing a must-win situation to make the playoffs, Walden ran circles around the Bears offensive line, finishing with 12 tackles (11 solo) and three sacks, earning him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors as the Packers defeated the Bears 10-3 to claim the NFC’s final playoff spot.
At least on paper and according to most experts, the Green Bay Packers were one of the “winners” from the 2011 NFL Draft. But for as good as the newest Packers could be this season, there are a handful of others who could make the jump from roster-worthy to impact player.
Breaking out implies that the player is not already well-known and has not made an impact on the team worth writing about. For example, Jordy Nelson could very well become the Packers’ second leading receiver in 2011, but last season was when he became a household name. Other notable players left off the list include Desmond Bishop, John Kuhn and Tim Masthay.
1. Mike Neal, DE: The Packers’ second round selection from 2010 played just 83 snaps during his rookie campaign, but a shoulder injury forced him to miss the remainder of the season. Many were skeptical of the pick, but in those two games Neal registered a forced fumble and sack to go with three tackles. With the reality that Cullen Jenkins could be in a different uniform come September, Neal could be expected to enter a starter’s role. He has the size and speed to play the position and could make the loss of Jenkins that much easier on the defense.
2. James Starks, RB: There’s no denying Starks’ impact down the stretch and into the playoffs, but his sophomore season could be the year that he takes the reigns from Ryan Grant and becomes the Packers’ starter of the future. Grant has been one of the more underrated running backs in the NFC over the past three seasons, but Starks has played well enough to at least share a 50/50 load in the backfield. Grant is under contract for just one more season and the Packers could be grooming Starks to take the role full-time.
3. Bryan Bulaga, RT:
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews followed up his stellar rookie campaign with an even better sophomore season, racking up 13.5 sacks and 60 tackles and finishing second in the AP Defensive Player of the Year voting. Making his production even more impressive was that, opposite Matthews, four players saw significant time due to injuries.
Frank Zombo, Brad Jones, Erik Walden and Brady Poppinga all saw time at right outside linebacker, with Jones and Poppinga being lost to season-ending injuries. There’s no question the Packers have plenty of depth at outside linebacker and, as is the case at a couple positions, there will be some tough decisions when Ted Thompson has to cut the roster to 53 players.
Zombo, an undrafted rookie free agent in 2010, is probably the best of the bunch with the brightest future, while Walden performed admirably after being signed in late October. Jones, a seventh round choice two seasons ago, has potential as well but projects as a back-up. Poppinga may make the roster as depth and a good special teams body, but that remains to be seen.
The Green Bay Packers started their 2010 minicamps Tuesday and there are already headlines being made. It is important to remember that it is only May and things like depth charts mean little because not everyone participates in the OTA’s.
Still, trends can form early in the year and position changes do mean a lot. Here are the early headlines making news for the Packers early in the preseason:
Justin Harrell Returns for the Start of OTA’s
The Packers have to be feeling good about winning their last two games against the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, but they also received equally bad news when it was revealed that starters Aaron Kampman and Al Harris would miss the rest of the season with torn ACL’s.
Not that injuries ever come at a good time, but the news came at a terrible time for a Packers defense that, after a poor showing against Minnesota and Tampa Bay, had strung together two solid performances before Harris and Kampman went down.
Both players went down on seemingly freak accidents where neither were involved in the play and, in Harris’s case, 30 yards away from the play. It was a “here we go again” moment for the Packers defense, who up to this point had avoided major injury from their defense. Last season, Cullen Jenkins, Nick Barnett, Atari Bigby, and Harris all missed time with injuries, leading to a 22nd ranked defense.
In a season where the Packers had continued to become more comfortable as each game passed in the new 3-4 defense, new personnel will now have to step on the field and become acclimated even faster.
The two players most affected by the injuries are certainly cornerback Tramon Williams and outside linebacker Brad Jones. Williams, the fourth year nickelback from Louisiana Tech was the heir to Al Harris or Charles Woodson once either of them decided to hang the cleats up, but his number has been called earlier than he expected and he should to be up to task.
More than the cornerback duo and safety combo of Nick Collins and Bigby, Green Bay’s secondary was considered one of the best in the league because teams faced three starting cornerbacks when they went with three wideouts. Williams was the reason why. At 27, Williams is in the prime of his career and is arguably the Packers’ best bump n’ run cornerback.
The drop-off from Harris to Williams will not hurt the Packers exponentially, but the real problem is the lack of depth the Packers now have in the nickel and dime spots. With Williams moving up to the starting role, one of Jarrett Bush or Brandon Underwood will take over the third cornerback role. Both are liabilities but have shown flashes of being able to get the job done. Brandon Chillar coming back in a few weeks will help the cause and newly signed Josh Bell could compete as well.
At the outside linebacker spot, rookie Brad Jones will likely step in for Kampman. Jones, a seventh round selection out of Colorado, started against the Cowboy as Kampman was unable to go with a concussion. He played well and finished the game with seven tackles and also racked up two tackles after subbing in for Kampman against San Francisco.
It is still a step down from Kampman, but Jones did a fine job getting after the quarterback and his speed will help in the pass defense more than Kampman would have.
The Packers’ first test will come tomorrow against the Lions, and while no game should ever be overlooked (see Tampa Bay), it will help the Packers work their new starters into the defense. After that, the defense will have 11 days to figure out what is going to work and what needs to happen for the Packers to have continued success without two of their best defenders.
Replacing 92 tackles and two veterans in a span of four days will be no easy task for Dom Capers and the Packers’ defense, but both Williams and Jones have been on the field for a good amount of time already and have both started a game. It is definitely something to look for in tomorrow’s game, regardless of the opponent.