The Green Bay Packers have done a good job addressing areas of need in recent years. When the run game ranked near the bottom of the league in 2011 and 2012, the Packers drafted Eddie Lacy to rejuvenate the backfield.
In 2013, Green Bay was the only team to not record an interception from the safety position. The Packers addressed that by selecting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with their first round pick, and he now appears to be a long-term fixture at safety.
This offseason, the Packers’ biggest need was the inside linebacker position. Green Bay parted ways with veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, leaving the team with an extremely young corps of inside linebackers.
When the season begins, the likely starters at inside linebacker will be Sam Barrington and Clay Matthews. Matthews will have had more time to learn the nuances of playing inside after being forced into that role last year, but the team would still prefer if he can stay outside, where he is one of the best in the league. Either way, Matthews will switch between playing inside and outside linebacker, especially at the beginning of the season.
Barrington will probably begin the season as the Packers’ fixture at inside linebacker. In 2014, he became the starter in Week 13 and held that spot through the end of the season. As the 2015 season approaches, Barrington appears ready for a more prominent role on the Green Bay defense.
After showing promise in his limited role last year, Barrington has stated that he now views himself as a leader on the team, despite being in just his third year. The former seventh-round pick begins training camp at the top of the depth chart, and will look to give some security at inside linebacker that was nonexistent last year.
The Packers would love if another linebacker steps up and performs well enough to allow Matthews to move back to the outside. The most likely to do so would be rookie Jake Ryan, who the Packers selected in the fourth round of the draft.
Ryan is a versatile player with above average speed who can play both inside and outside. Like most rookies, he will need polishing to become a more complete player, but he has the athletic ability and desire for success to develop into a playmaker for Green Bay.
Ryan is also better in coverage than the inside linebackers the Packers have had in the past, which could allow him to become a three-down linebacker. Ryan will need time to learn behind Barrington and Matthews, so it is unlikely that he finds himself an opening day starter. But midway through the year it is possible that Ryan could be next to Barrington on the inside with Matthews back at his natural position.
Second year players Carl Bradford and Joe Thomas will both also compete for time at the position, though they face a more uphill battle. Bradford had a quiet preseason last year, and was inactive for every regular season game. Thomas suffered an injury that prevented him from having any impact either. While Ryan and Barrington seem to be ahead of Bradford and Thomas on the depth chart for the time being, training camp could see sleepers emerge and rise up the depth chart.
Matthews and Barrington are the favorites to man the inside linebacker position when the season begins. But the Packers did not use a draft pick on Ryan just to stash him low on the depth chart forever. Barrington will have the chance to assert himself as a leader for the defense, and Ryan will get the opportunity to prove he can anchor the linebacker corps as well.
It may take time to develop, but the Packers have the pieces to once again successfully address their biggest area of need. By the end of the season, Matthews could go back to a full-time outside linebacker while Barrington and Ryan hold down the middle.——————
Sean Blashe is a Packers fan who grew up in Bears territory and is currently a journalism and history major at Marquette University. Sean is a writer with PackersTalk.com and you can follow him on twitter at @SeanBlashe .