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Packers position outlook: Linebackers

1/29/2014

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- We’re in the second week of our position-by-position look at what the Green Bay Packers have and what they need.

We can revisit this process before the draft based on what -- if anything -- general manager Ted Thompson does in free agency.

So far, we’ve looked at quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles, centers/guards and defensive linemen.

Next up, linebackers.

2014 free agents: Mike Neal, Robert Francois and Jamari Lattimore (restricted free agent).

The good: Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk had perhaps his best season. The ultra-reliable veteran led the Packers in tackles and posted a career-high five sacks. On the outside, Clay Matthews, when healthy, was productive. Neal, who made the transition from defensive end, showed some promise. Rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer look like developmental prospects on the outside, while Lattimore and Sam Barrington could be the same at the inside positions.

The bad: The twice-broken thumb that cost Matthews five regular-season games plus the playoffs left the Packers without a key playmaker at a position that is supposed to make big plays in coordinator Dom Capers’ defense. Thompson also made major investments in two players -- inside linebacker Brad Jones and outside linebacker Nick Perry -- and neither one paid off. He gave Jones a three-year, $11.75 million contract that included a $3 million signing bonus and then cut Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith to hand Jones the starting job. Two years ago, Thompson used a first-round pick on Perry, who played defensive end in college. The transition to outside linebacker has been anything but smooth and has been slowed by injuries.

The money: The Packers have more salary-cap space committed to linebacker ($18.7 million so far) than any other position for 2014. Matthews, who signed a five-year, $66 million contract extension last offseason, accounts for $6.71 million of that followed by Hawk ($5.2 million) and Jones ($2.5 million). Neal would be the only impending free agent who might command any kind of significant money, and it remains to be seen whether the Packers intend to re-sign him.

Draft priority: The Packers need playmakers on defense, but this position might rank behind safety and defensive line in terms of importance.