One year ago, Green Bay's linebacker group made hundreds of tackles; however, they did not create many turnovers, and they did not produce a high number of tackles for loss. At best, the group was competent; under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates, the linebackers need to be great.
If the Bates scheme is significantly better than what has existed in recent years, the talent level of returnees Na'il Diggs, Nick Barnett and Hannibal Navies may well produce better results simply because they are used properly. On the other hand, schemes can only give a player the opportunity to make plays, for the defense to be significantly better, the linebackers must make key tackles and create turnovers.
General Manager Ted Thomson has added some talent at linebacker. While perennial disappointment Torrance Marshall was allowed to leave, a pretty good veteran named Ray (no longer to be called "Raynoch") Thompson was signed to compete at the weak side position. Thomson is fast and showed some playmaking ability in Arizona. He is on paper an upgrade over Hannibal Navies. With Thompson available, Na'il Diggs can return to the strong side, a position where he had more success in prior seasons.
From the draft, Thompson has brought in a player with the size and speed that every team seeks. Brigham Young's Brady Poppinga 6-3 245 impressed Coach Bates in the mini-camps with his "take no prisoners" attitude. It would not be an enormous shock to see Poppinga at strong side linebacker before the season is over. The draft also produced a weak-side linebacker prospect in Albany State's Kurt Campbell.
There are also two rookie free agents who may compete for a roster spot. I mentioned both players in pre draft articles. Alabama Birmingham's Zac Woodfin was a tackling machine in college who may well have the attitude and drive to be a contributor on special teams. Michigan's Roy Manning is a player who improved dramatically as a senior. If he, like Cullen Jenkins last season, continues to improve as a pro, the 6-2 245 Manning could be a factor.
All in all, the linebacker group should have better athletes. If the coaches can bring out the talent, linebacker play could be much better. One potential impact of the new linebackers could be improved production by special teams. Many of the young players will be on special team in the pre-season games. We will have a chance to see if they are likely to be contributors during the 2005 season.