CAMP BODIES PART 5 LINEBACKERS Jerry Gilbert 8/5/2007
Linebacker is expected to be a position of strength for the Green Bay Packers this season because Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk and Brady Poppinga are all talented, and they now have a year of experience playing together. On the other hand, the back up situation is unsettled, which creates and opening for a camp body to break through. Last season's top reserve, Ben Taylor, was not re-signed, which leaves only special team stalwart Tracy White to back up on the outside and former Iowa star Abdul Hodge to play the middle. White played very little from scrimmage last season, and Hodge had one forgettable start when Nick Barnett was injured. Many believe that Hodge could emerge as a valuable member of the team, but his performance in the off-season has not supported that view. White is probably not the answer as a reliable reserve at outside linebacker.
Given the apparent openings on the roster, it is surprising that no significant free agent was added at linebacker. Two linebackers were drafted, but they are unlikely to fill the needs. Korey Hall from Boise State was drafted for his special team ability, and he has been switched to fullback. California's Desmond Bishop is basically a clone of Abdul Hodge. Both were tackling machines as college middle linebackers, but neither is thought to have the speed to play any other position. If Bishop makes the roster, it will probably be because he beat out Hodge at middle linebacker. At least one camp body should have a good shot at making the final roster.
A prime contender is Spencer Havner 6-3 242 UCLA 4.63 forty. As a surprise to many, the much-heralded Havner was not drafted in 2006. Signed as a free agent by the Redskins, Havner did not make the final roster, and, after he was cut, he spent most of last season on the Green Bay practice squad. Team captain, defensive MVP and the holder of some all time records at UCLA, Havner played well in college, and at the Senior Bowl, but has yet to make an impression in the NFL. His college pedigree and the fact that he stuck on the practice squad all season suggest that Havner has a real shot to make the Green Bay Packers this season, but he will have to play well in the preseason. To his credit, Havner was the first Packer down field on kick coverage in the Family Night Inter Squad exhibition.
At UCLA, Havner played both the strong and weak side positions, and was on some All America teams at each position. Although he was neither exceptionally strong nor fast, Havner was always effective. His 402 tackles rank third in UCLA history and he is first in touchdowns scored by a linebacker. His career included 6 sacks, 42 tackles for loss, four fumbles caused, 22 passes deflected and three blocked kicks. Most of these game-changing plays came in big games. Rob Rang of Draft Scout described Havner as the "most instinctive" linebacker at Senior Bowl practices. This is a player to watch in the preseason.
Rory Johnson 6-0 232 Mississippi 4.54 forty is another very productive college linebacker. The biggest negative with Johnson is that he is already in the NFL substance abuse program and is one mistake away from a suspension. This could help explain why this talented junior was not selected in the 2007 draft.
Following a successful junior college career, Johnson played one season at Old Miss. Despite not beginning the season as a starter he compiled 94 tackles including 3 for a loss, three forced fumbles and two fumbles recovered. Signed by Green Bay as a rookie free agent, Johnson has missed training camp with an injury. He will need to get on the field and play well in preseason games to have much chance. As of now, this barely 21 immature prospect appears headed either for the practice squad or back home.
Another rookie linebacker beset by some off the field issues is Juwan Simpson 6-3 225 Alabama 4.55. Simpson had already graduated before his senior season, with a degree in "criminal justice" and made all academic teams, along with being recognized for community service. He was also a defensive co-captain. His stellar record is now marred by an arrest in May 2006 resulting in drugs, theft and weapons charges, although the whole mess was resolved with a plea to a minor offense. Nevertheless, he was suspended one game and fell out of the draft. With a career in "law enforcement" now unlikely, Simpson has begun graduate work toward a masters in Business. Earning a spot on an NFL roster could make his life much simpler.
There is more to this story. For 2 seasons at Alabama, the linebacker was known as Juwan Garth, which was the name of his mother. As things turned out, his natural father, Walter Simpson, ultimately married his mother , and after his dad's untimely death at age 49, Juwan decided to change his name. College recruiting slowed the process because Juwan Simpson never played high school football. Juwan Garth signed with Alabama. Once secure at Alabama, and after the legal procedures had been completed, the name change was announced. Ironically, the new name came about the same time that Juwan regained a starting role that he had lost the previous season.
During his career at Alabama, Simpson was a solid but not spectacular outside linebacker. In his final two seasons, he registered 150 tackles, with 12 for a loss and 2.5 sacks. Nevertheless, he was an active contributor to one of the top defenses in the country and earned an invitation to the combine. As with Rory Johnson, Simpson has missed some practice time with injuries. On the other hand, the presence in Green Bay of his old friend and Alabama teammate Charlie Peprah has eased his transition to pro football. Like the other candidates, Juwan Simpson has a chance because there is no solid veteran ahead of him.
There are two other new linebackers who have little chance to make the team. Both play middle linebacker, the deepest position, and both are tired from having played in NFL Europa. One is guaranteed a spot on the practice squad. Because of an NFL plan to place foreign players on practice squads, one new Packer is Carl -Johan Bjork 6-0 247 from the Stockholm Mean Machines. Bjork also played 3 seasons in NFL Europe for Amsterdam where he led his team in tackles last year and made 2 more in the final world Bowl before the league was dissolved.
The NFL International Development Practice Squad Program began last season. Bjork was with Dallas and reportedly made a favorable impression. For a player who fell in love with the foreign game at age 14, playing in Lambeau has to be a high point in his football career. He is assured to stay with the team, but Carl-Johan Bjork is very unlikely to earn a roster spot. For now, he is with a countryman. Center C. J. Blomvall, who played two years at Temple, was recently signed to be a training camp center.
The other middle linebacker who played in Europe is Tim Goodwell 6-2 232 Memphis. Goodwell was in camp with the Packers last summer and spent a few weeks on the Green Bay Practice squad last season. In January 2007, he was r re-signed for the purpose of allocating him to NFL Europa.
At Memphis, he lettered four years and started his final two seasons. For his career, Goodwin made 249 tackles including 21 for a loss with 7 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. His best game may have been his last at Memphis in the Motor City Bowl in which he led the team with 12 tackles including 5 for a loss and 2 sacks. Goodwin also played well for Berlin in Europe making 28 tackles and forcing 2 fumbles along with consistent pass coverage. Unless he shows he can move outside, Goodwin will be caught behind three draft choices at middle linebacker and only two players will make the team. With Carl-Johan Bjork already on the practice squad, Goodwell is a long shot even to land there.
The camp body linebackers probably have the best chance to put a player on the final roster. Spence Havner would appear to have the best chance, but the preseason has a long way to go.