For the last two years I’ve been making a list of 5 guys that have to be good. This kind of list isn’t obvious. You’re not going to find Aaron Rodgers on this list. These are guys that you might not think of right away regarding the overall success of the Packers.
That’s the thing, though. Aaron Rodgers is going to play well. Clay Matthews, should he stay healthy is going to play well. Eddie Lacy’s going to be good and so is the offensive line. The players that we know are good are more than likely going to play well.
It’s the players that are “in the margins” that can make the difference between another 11 or 12 win team with a playoff “run” and a 13 or 14 win team and the 14th World Championship in Packers history.
When the Packers released Brad Jones and AJ Hawk there was a pretty large sigh of relief. Hawk was largely respected while Jones was not but no matter how the fans felt about them neither player was producing at an acceptable level. The issue, though, is that the point of replacing marginal players is having better ones take their place.
Enter Sam Barrington. In an ideal world it would appear that the keys to the middle of the defense have been handed to the 3rd year pro out of South Florida. Barrington is looking to succeed where DJ Smith, Terrell Manning and Jamari Lattimore ultimately failed.
The Packers have been looking for an athletic linebacker to solidify the middle of the defense and replace what the Packers lost when Desmond Bishop got hurt and never recovered. That defense was looking for a playmaker to line up beside the (then) steady Hawk. This defense is looking for something different.
If the Packers are going to truly succeed on defense (and I think they just need to be a top 8-12 unit to win the title) Barrington needs to be a rock. I think the defense will work best if Sam Barrington and Clay Matthews play between 90 and 95 % of the snaps. If Barrington can play every down in every package in the middle of the defense, play plus run defense and plus pass defense Matthews can attack from all angles.
The Packers have effective edge defenders that we know a lot about. Julius Peppers is a hall of famer. Nick Perry is a first round pick with who has flashed potential that just might need to stay healthy. Mike Neal is another highly drafted player. The hope is that those three players provide depth for Matthews on the outside and Barrington, and 2014 and 2015 4th round picks Carl Bradford and Jake Ryan provide depth for Matthews on the inside.
The concept to me is very basic. If the Packers can throw together a competent set of 4 linebackers that don’t include Clay Matthews, then it doesn’t matter where Clay Matthews plays. When it doesn’t matter where Clay Matthews plays defenses can’t track him. If Julius Peppers, Jake Ryan, Sam Barrington and Nick Perry can all play well, this idea works.
As highly as I think of Jake Ryan, he’s not the inside linebacker that’s going to play on every down. That’s going to be Sam Barrington. Barrington has to be the straw that stirs the drink. He has to give the Packers the productivity from the inside linebacker position ever since the Hawk/Bishop tandem was broken up.
If Sam Barrington can give the Packers league average play, it will seem like a revolution. A season ago Pro Football Focus charted 60 inside linebackers that played at least 25% of their team’s snaps. Jamari Lattimore came in 30th (limited snaps), Barrington 34th and AJ Hawk checked in 52nd. Brad Jones didn’t qualify but he would have been worse. If he could get to the level of Kevin Minter or even Manti Te’o it would be a big deal.
If he (and Jake Ryan) can play well it could revolutionize the defense. If he can be an above average player it could really open things up for Coach Capers. We know that Clay Matthews is going to move around. What we need is for Sam Barrington to hold down the fort. Sam Barrington has to be good.