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Jerry Gilbert
What a year 2010 turned out to be for the Green Bay Packer linebackers. Entering the season, the team returned four starters in Clay Matthews and Brad Jones outside and Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk inside. Brandon Chiller had been a great situational reserve the year before and veterans Brady Poppinga and Desmond Bishop provided depth. General Manager Ted Thompson added no additional linebackers in the draft.

Injuries upset all plans. Jones went down first, followed soon by Barnett, Poppinga and Chiller. Suddenly, what had been a deep position became thin, and when Clay Matthews missed a game and a half, Green Bay lost both contests. Fortunately, rookie free agent Frank Zombo earned his way onto the roster, and he performed pretty well as the third strong linebacker opposite Matthews. Even more significant was the inside play of Desmond Bishop, who, as the season progressed brought as much to the defense as Barnett had been providing. A. J. Hawk also elevated his game. The interior defense had little depth, but Hawk and Bishop; played great in the second half of the season. The other contributor was Erik Walden, who as replacement for Frank Zombo, held down the position for several games, and had a big impact against Chicago with 3 sacks.

Looking ahead, Hawk, Bishop and Chiller have all been signed for the future. Barnett is trade bait. The Packers hope that from Jones, Zombo and Walden they can find one player who can defend the run and provide an effective pass rush from the other side. Most likely, there will be two pretty good reserves already on the roster, but the Packers may look to the draft to find a first or second round talent to add competition. In later rounds, they could go after a reserve inside linebacker to add depth. Last season proved that in the 3-4 defense, it is easy to run out of linebackers.

Fortunately, the 2011 draft is deep in players who have the potential to play outside linebacker in the 3-4. Some of the best will be taken long before Green Bay has a selection. Von Miller 6-3 246 Texas A&M will be one of the first players chosen. While a bad ankle impaired his senior season, a healthy Miller came back to dominate at the Senior Bowl which validated his outstanding numbers as a junior. Other candidates will be gone as well, but the experts are not in agreement as to which if any may be available at the end of the first round of the 2011 NFL draft.

One outstanding athlete who draws both rants and raves is Akeem Ayers 6-3 254 UCLA. Ayers is either a great talent with poor instincts or a perfect fit at 3-4 outside linebacker depending upon the commentator. He is a playmaker who produced 11 sacks in 2 years and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. The concerns remain, but he will be a consideration if he drops far enough. Another highly rated linebacker likely to go in round 1 is Justin Houston 6-3 270 Georgia. One attractive feature of Houston is that he played in a 3-4 defense as a senior, and he has an advantage in making the transition to the NFL. His statistics last year, 67 tackles with 18 for loss and 40 hurries with 10 sacks suggest that he could be very disruptive for Green Bay right away.

Also to be considered is the player who looks and in some ways plays like Clay Matthews. Brooks Reed 6-3 257 Arizona is frequently described as relentless in pursuit with a nonstop motor, and he has long flowing blond hair. Many observers say he is notches below Matthews, but he impressed most scouts with his pass rush and pass coverage skills at the Senior Bowl. He also ran the fastest 10-yard split of any linebacker at the Combine.

Finally, there are two college defensive ends who are possibilities for the 3-4 but are more likely to be drafted early by 4-3 defenses. Robert Quinn 6-5 268 North Carolina is a great talent who missed some of his senior year for violating NCAA rules. Aldon Smith 6-4 260 Missouri accounted for 11.5 sacks as a freshman and though less impressive statistically, he came back quickly from injury to anchor the defense last year. He is a red shirt sophomore.

Most of these players and several defensive ends will be drafted before the Packers select at the end of round 1. If the Packers are targeting any of these players, they may have to trade up to get the player they want.

If Packer General Manager Ted Thompson waits till later rounds to select an outside linebacker there will be prospects. One of the best is Sam Acho 6-2 262 Texas who is likely to be a second round selection. Acho as a senior registered 63 tackles including 14 for a loss and 10 sacks. He also broke up 2 passes and recovered 4 fumbles. Acho is a two time academic All American, and he won two national awards based on a combination of athletics, scholarship and community involvement. He is clearly a good character performer who could be an asset in Green Bay.

K.J. Wright 6-3 246 Mississippi State was a three-year starter at outside linebacker. Last season he made 98 tackles with 3 sacks. Wright did not stand out in Senior Bowl practices, but he had an interception in the game. He may be able to back up at inside linebacker as well.

A junior who has room to improve is Thomas Keiser 6-5 244 Stanford. Keiser had 15 sacks in 25 college games. He was not invited to the Combine and should be available in the later rounds. Another late round possibility is Cliff Matthews 6-4 268 South Carolina. In 2010, as a defensive end, he totaled 38 tackles with 4.5 sacks. He also played extensively at linebacker for SC. Matthews refused an invitation to the East West Shrine Event, which may have hurt his draft status.

Near the end of the 2011 NFL draft, the Packers may look at a candidate to back up at inside linebacker. A possibility is Mario Harvey 6-0 257 Marshall. As a junior he made 117 tackles and sacked the quarterback 7 times. At a recent pro day, Harvey ran a 4.43 forty and achieved 27 bench press reps. This shows a good combination of strength and speed to help on special teams.

Some commentators like the idea of drafting Clays younger Brother Casey Matthews 6-1 238 Oregon to play inside linebacker. When asked about the prospect, Casey did not seem enthusiastic. I think it is a bad idea. On the other hand, there is another bloodline pick who could make a fine late round selection. Greg Lloyd Jr 6-1 246 Connecticut played end and both inside and outside linebacker in his college career. His father was outstanding, and the younger Lloyd might be worth a pick.

There seems to be a good chance that the Packers could find an adequate starter from the combination of Frank Zombo, Brad Jones and Erik Walden and one of them could back up on the inside. However, a better strategy would be to attempt to draft a quality outside linebacker this April.

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