NFC North: Brad Jones
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The roster is so thin at inside linebacker that at this point it's nearly impossible to come up with a second starter for the Green Bay Packers.
In fact, the defensive depth chart at ESPN.com does not even list one.
And really, who else would you put next to Sam Barrington?
Neither has ever played an NFL regular-season game at that spot. In fact, Bradford has never played an NFL game at any spot. The fourth-round pick, who moved from inside linebacker during the final week of the preseason, was inactive for every game last season. Palmer also moved from inside linebacker in the final week of the preseason but went on season-ending injured reserve a week later because of a knee injury.
You could put Clay Matthews there, but Matthews surely would rather go back to outside linebacker on a full-time basis.
"If you need this number of players at this position, then you figure out ways to acquire those players over time," Packers general manager Ted Thompson told reporters this week at the NFL annual meetings in Phoenix. "I don't think you jump in and try to do it the very next day. You plan it out, and this is not necessarily something that wasn't already planned out."
Surely, Thompson knew late last season, after watching Hawk and Jones get benched, that this was going to be a position of need for 2015. And in typical Thompson fashion, it appears the need will be filled through the draft. He would have liked C.J. Mosley in last year's draft, but the Baltimore Ravens took the Alabama linebacker four spots earlier. And besides, Thompson filled what was a more pressing need at the time with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
If there's angst over the linebacker spot outside the organization, that does not appear to be the feeling from within.
"We have some people that can evaluate players, and we have coaches that coach them, and there we go," Thompson said. "And we've done this before at different positions."
Just last year, Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy remade both the defensive line and the safety spot. They let veteran defensive tackles Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly leave and then played all of last season without B.J. Raji. It could be argued that strategy failed, given their problems against the run, where they ranked dead last in the league halfway through the year and finished 23rd only after moving Matthews inside on early downs.
However, it worked at safety, where they successfully moved cornerback Micah Hyde and drafted Clinton-Dix in the first round.
"There's always the unknowns," Thompson said. "And there's always, 'We think this, but we're not certain about this,' and I understand that. But that's just part of the personnel business. You have to keep marching forward. You have to keep going, and you can't worry about every little bump in the road. You can't worry yourself to death [and say], 'Oh woe is me, what are we going to do about this, what are we going to do about that?'"
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed and heard at the NFL combine on Friday:
Don’t blame Slocum: If you want to blame former Green Bay Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum for the botched onside kick recovery in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Seattle Seahawks, you should know this: According to a person familiar with Slocum’s instructions on the sideline, one of the last things he told his hands team before the play was this: "If your name isn't Jordy Nelson or Micah Hyde, don't try to field the ball." Of course, we all know that Brandon Bostick, who was released earlier this week, tried to catch it and failed, allowing the Seahawks to recover. Two weeks later Slocum, whose special teams units were problematic all season and allowed the Seahawks to run a fake field goal for a touchdown, was fired.
Zimmer on Bostick: After the Minnesota Vikings claimed Bostick off waivers, coach Mike Zimmer told reporters who cover his team that Bostick will add depth and competition at the tight end position. And then Zimmer joked, "We'll try not to put him on the onside kick team."
Meet the linebackers: A day after coach Mike McCarthy more or less said inside linebacker is the Packers' greatest need this offseason, two of the top inside linebackers in the draft -- Missississppi State's Benardrick McKinney and Miami's Denzel Perryman -- both confirmed they have formal interviews scheduled with the Packers during the combine. The Packers began their overhaul at the position by releasing veteran Brad Jones on Friday.
Big things for Janis: For those fans who wondered why receiver Jeff Janis couldn't get on the field much last year as a rookie, know this: McCarthy still has high hopes for the former seventh-round pick who spent most of last season on the inactive list. Janis was active for only three games and played just 15 snaps on offense. He caught two passes for 16 yards. "I thought probably after Thanksgiving, I thought Jeff really picked it up," McCarthy said. "He was more comfortable, and so I look for him to take a step. He's got to play with extension. That's the one thing he has to do a better job of, but you can see it on the scout team, and at the end of the year he was running some really good routes. Really good routes."
Monday marks the first day teams can use the tags, which Kevin Seifert explains here.
Although the final numbers have not been set, the franchise tag for receivers last season was $12.312 million – the third-highest figure behind quarterbacks ($16.192 million) and defensive ends ($13.116 million). Those numbers increase annually.
Indications are that Cobb is seeking a deal that averages in the $9 million per year range. That would come close to the four-year, $39 million contract extension the Packers gave receiver Jordy Nelson last summer.
It's unclear how far talks have progressed, if they have at all, between the Packers and Cobb's agent, Jimmy Sexton. Sexton did not return a message left Monday. The two sides likely will meet later this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
Cobb, who won't turn 25 until Aug. 22, is hitting free agency as he comes off his best season with 91 catches, 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns.
According to ESPN Stats & Information salary data, the Packers will have to count $124,476,946 on their salary cap beginning March 10, when the top-51 contracts are charged against the cap. The official cap number for 2015 has not been set, but it's expected to be around $140 million. That would leave the Packers with just over $15 million in space.
However, according to the NFL Players Association, the Packers also will carry over $7,791,106 in unused space from last season, giving them nearly $23 million available cap room.
The Packers also could pick up an additional $7.25 million in cap space if they released linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, who saw their playing time dwindle last season.
He's also facing some decisions about players under contract for next season.
Not that the Packers are hurting for salary-cap space -- they already have $18,361,430 in available room for 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information salary data -- but they could pick up a lot more room if they decide to release some players already under contract.
If the Packers make salary-cap related moves, they usually do so before free agency begins in March.
Here's a look at three possible salary-cap casualties:
A.J. Hawk, LB
2015 salary-cap charge: $5.1 million
Cap savings if released: $3.5 million
Brad Jones, LB
2015 salary-cap charge: $4.75 million
Cap savings if released: $3.75 million
Julius Peppers, OLB
2015 salary-cap charge: $12 million
Cap savings if released: $7 million
Linebacker Brad Jones was not fined for his hit to the helmet of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in the second quarter of last Sunday's game, but linebacker Sam Barrington was docked $16,537 for roughing Stafford in third quarter. Barrington was not penalized even though he drove Stafford into the turf.
It marks Barrington's second fine in three weeks. He was hit with the same fine for a horse-collar tackle in Week 15 against the Buffalo Bills.
Jones' penalty was costly at the time because it came on a third-and-13 play on which Stafford had thrown an incomplete pass, and the Lions would have faced fourth down from the Packers' 35-yard line. Instead on the next play, Stafford hit for a 20-yard touchdown that cut the Packers' lead to 14-7.
Lions running back Reggie Bush was fined $8,268 for grabbing the facemask of Packers' cornerback Casey Hayward as the two tumbled out of bounds in the third quarter.
Or at least the end of his time with the Green Bay Packers.
How else can you describe the nine-year veteran's diminished playing time the last two weeks?
He continues to insist that he's not hurt, just as he did when first asked about it on Thanksgiving and then again Thursday after his closest friend on the team, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, suggested this week on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show that Hawk has been playing hurt and dealing with "a body that hasn’t been responding, I think, as well as he wanted it to at times this year."
Less than a month ago, Hawk played all 78 defensive snaps against the Philadelphia Eagles. A week later, he still played the majority – 55 of 68 snaps – against the Minnesota Vikings. But two weeks ago, his role was slashed. He took the field for less than half of the plays – 26 of 56 – against the New England Patriots. And on Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons, old No. 50 trotted out for just eight of 67 plays.
The last two weeks, defensive coordinator Dom Capers gave Hawk snaps in only one defensive package – his base 3-4, which he rarely employs anymore. Hawk, who used to play in both the nickel and dime package, has seen his role diminish in favor of Sam Barrington, Clay Matthews and even Brad Jones, depending on the game plan.
"I think he's probably better now that we aren't playing him [every snap]," Capers said. "There were a couple games he played 70 plays. We're always concerned about not overplaying our guys to where hopefully we can have him as healthy as we can have him through the month of December and hopefully a chance to play after that. I think A.J.'s fine now. I think he's better right now with the fact that he hasn't played 70 plays the last couple weeks. I think that will bode well for us moving forward."
The 30-year-old Hawk has spent his entire career with the team that drafted him fifth overall in 2006, although they did cut him once, in March 2011, only to sign him back under different terms one day later. He's one of the most insightful players on the team on the rare occasion that he shows up in the locker room during the week of a game, but he has never been comfortable talking about himself.
"It doesn't matter; no one cares," Hawk said at his locker. "Everyone is in their own life, and they should be. This team is playing really well. That's why I was hesitant to even come in here. Nothing is about me. It shouldn't be about me. It's dumb to talk about me. We're 10-3."
Hawk said he has thought about the end of his career but doesn't believe he's at that point yet. He has one more year remaining on his current contract, which pays him $3.5 million in salary and bonuses this season and calls for him to make the same next season.
"I've been preparing since the day I walked in here for the day I get cut," Hawk said. "I've been cut before, so whenever they decide to let me roll, that's something I've been preparing for since I was 21 basically, when I got drafted. But I have no idea. I can't predict the future; I definitely don't try to. I don't deal in hypotheticals, that's for sure. They can tap me on the shoulder right now and get me out of here. So our contracts aren't real contracts like that. They're not obliged to keep me here through the end of, what, next year, I guess, my contract is.
"So I don't think I let like my mind wander or anything towards what could happen. That's not up to me, but try to hopefully get another ring, at least, before they give me the boot."
It happened in 2010, when the inside linebacker did not play a single snap on defense in the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Days later, his agent went so far as to say Hawk would be open to a trade if the Packers weren't going to play him.
The former first-round pick finds himself in a similar spot.
His role in Sunday's 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots was greatly reduced. He played only in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' base package, which meant just 26 out of a possible 56 defensive snaps. Sam Barrington replaced him in the nickel package, playing next to Clay Matthews, who also played as the lone inside linebacker in the dime package (a role Hawk has played for most of his career).
"I thought our defense played great, so me personally, whenever I'm in, I'm going to play hard," Hawk said after the game. "It was awesome, the whole defensive effort."
With the Packers preparing for Monday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons, there's no telling what Hawk's role will be going forward.
"I would say it would vary from week to week," Capers said. "You saw him play every snap of our [base] defense. And you saw two weeks ago against Minnesota, we used Brad Jones inside in our dime defense. You saw Clay Matthews in there [Sunday]. Again, based off what our opponent is doing, you'll see different personnel groups and different people involved in those, and it could change from one week to the next based on your injury situation [and] who's available."
That would indicate Hawk remains in the Packers' plans. However, this isn't the 26-year-old Hawk of 2010. Four years later, Hawk might not be the player he was then. Although he insisted last week that he is healthy, Hawk looked like he was struggling in coverage against Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, who on the first play of the Nov. 23 game caught a pass 2 yards from the line of scrimmage and ran away from Hawk for a 23-yard gain.
Perhaps with that play in his mind and with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski coming up next, Capers went with Matthews in the middle in the dime, a role he had never played before Sunday.
"The purpose is to try to get your best 11 people against who they put out there and the matchups," Capers said. "[Sunday] was going to be a big matchup game and if they got the matchup they wanted, I mean, you've seen them take Gronkowski and just wear people out on Gronkowski. That's why we were willing to have a number of different ways to cover him."
The Green Bay Packers are by and large healthy this season, and that's newsworthy for a team that has been injury-plagued for the better part of McCarthy's tenure as head coach.
This week's injury report provide a snapshot of just how different this season has been in the Packers’ training room. Every Friday, before McCarthy takes the microphone for hisnews conference, public relations director Jason Wahlers reads the injury report. This week, it contained just four names: Sitton (toe), fellow starting guard T.J. Lang (ankle) -- both listed as a probable -- and a pair of backups, tight end Brandon Bostick (hip) and outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott hamstring), who were ruled out.
Never before in McCarthy's previous eight seasons as head coach had the Packers listed so few players on a Week 11 injury report.
"Let's talk about that after the season," McCarthy said, "because I don't want to jinx it."
But he added, "The numbers are good."
Anything might look good compared to the run of injury luck -- if luck actually has anything to do with injuries -- the Packers have been on the last several seasons. According to an annual offseason study by Football Outsiders, the Packers ranked ahead of only two teams in adjusted games lost to injuries. In 2012, no one was hit harder than the Packers, according to the same formula. Since 2008, the Packers have ranked in the top half of the NFL in adjusted games lost only twice -- in 2009 (12th) and 2011 (16th).
Football Outsiders has not compiled injury data yet this season, but the Packers have only one projected starter –--nose tackle B.J. Raji -- out for the season. He was lost to a torn biceps tendon in the preseason.
Only one offensive starter has missed a game (right tackle Bryan Bulaga in Week 2). On the other side of the ball, defensive end Datone Jones leads the way among starters with three missed games, while cornerback Sam Shields has missed two. No other defensive starter has missed more than one unless you count Brad Jones, the Week 1 starter at inside linebacker who upon his return after missing three games because of a thigh injury did not get his job back.
McCarthy has searched far and wide for ways to limit injuries. This season, he adopted a practice schedule similar to what Sunday's opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, have done under coach Chip Kelly.
"I look at really my time here, we've probably been through three generations of practice schedules," McCarthy said. "The first couple years, the amount of time that we were on the field was obviously extremely higher than it is now, and then we made adjustments, which I thought were favorable."
This year, in a normal, seven-day week before a Sunday game, the Packers practice Wednesday (not in pads), Thursday (in pads) and rest on Friday before a short practice on Saturday morning without pads.
"I've always been taught the philosophy of two days on and one day off," Sitton said Friday. "That's how I've always trained; that's how I train in the offseason. So, it makes sense to do it during the season. Your body can only handle so many days in a row. I think we've brought a lot more energy to the practice field. I seem to notice a difference."
Or maybe it was just a one-week wonder that caught the Chicago Bears off guard.
But on Sunday night, they filled their need for a playmaking inside linebacker and fixed their leaky run defense all at once.
Meet the Packers' new inside linebacker, Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews.
In a defense cooked up during last week's bye, Matthews opened the game at inside linebacker and stayed there during most of Sunday's 55-14 victory against the Bears, except when Capers used his dime package on third-and-long situations. The rest of the night, Matthews played next to Hawk in a nickel alignment that served as the primary defense. Nick Perry started in Matthews' place at right outside linebacker.
Producing a team- and career-high 11 tackles (including nine solo stops) later -- and one sack, which came from his old outside linebacker spot -- Matthews' move was an instant success that took half a season to discover. He had never had more than eight tackles in a game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"We'll see what it means moving forward," Matthews said. "Obviously it's a little premature to say there's a switch to middle linebacker or whatever you want to call it, but I think as we've shown throughout the years, throughout this season as well, we try to find a little more versatility for myself."
The Packers came into the game ranked last in the NFL in rushing defense, giving up 153.5 yards per game. They held the Bears, who rushed for 235 against them in Week 4, to just 55 yards on 24 attempts. It was the first time all season the Packers have held anyone to less than 100 yards in a game.
Now, for just the second time in seven weeks, they are not ranked last in the league in rushing defense. They climbed two spots to 30th, matching their highest ranking of the season.
"During the bye week, it's like everything, you have a chance to kind of reboot, to reset yourself for the second half of the season," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Playing Clay at different areas, a different position, to create targeting problems for the offense was something that we spent the whole offseason highlighting it, and this was kind of the next step. Great job by our defensive staff with the creativity, and Clay stepped in there and played at an extremely high level. I thought he was outstanding."
And what kind of inside linebacker does Hawk think his new partner made?
"Tonight, obviously, a pretty good one," Hawk said after the game. "I think being on the move, different times rushing off the edge or coming back and being in the box, that adds something that the offense hasn't seen until tonight, really."
The Packers have started three different players at the inside linebacker spot next to A.J. Hawk this season, and they have not gotten enough production out of any of them.
During this week's bye and before the Packers return to action on Nov. 9 against the Chicago Bears, defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to decide whether to continue using both Sam Barrington and Jamari Lattimore in the spot that actually belonged to Brad Jones to start the season. Jones played poorly in Week 1 against Seattle and then went down with a quad injury. Although he has returned to action, he has not reclaimed a regular role on defense.
In Sunday's loss to the New Orleans Saints, Barrington made his second straight start and played in the base and nickel packages alongside the veteran Hawk. But in the dime package, which used only one inside linebacker, Lattimore got the call.
It's unusual for the dime backer not to play in the other defensive packages. If the Packers had a player like they truly liked at that spot, they would play him on all three downs.
If the Packers could get more impact plays from their inside linebackers, perhaps it would help their struggling run defense, which has fallen back to last in the league after giving up 193 yards to the Saints.
"We've got different packages, and we'll constantly look at what we feel is going to give us the best chance to get things stopped," Capers said. "So obviously after a game like [Sunday] night, you go back and you're going to look at your run defensive stuff and try to make sure you get that corrected."
They usually say so because of their injury situation.
This past weekend wasn't the Green Bay Packers' bye -- that comes Nov. 2 -- but they had what coach Mike McCarthy called a "mini bye" after playing last Thursday against the Minnesota Vikings.
And given the Packers' relatively low injury count at this point, maybe the mini bye was not even needed.
"I don't know why we've got to talk about that,” said McCarthy, ever leery of discussing injuries.
Here's a look at the few lingering injury issues the Packers are dealing with heading into Sunday's game at the Miami Dolphins:
- Datone Jones: The starting defensive end left the game against the Vikings with a sprained ankle and did not return. After the game, Jones appeared to be walking fine on his way out of the locker room. He said someone rolled on his ankle during a second-quarter screen pass. "Obviously you can see I'm not hurt, so it was just one of those scary situations," Jones said after the game. "I don't really know what happened, but I'm OK." However, on Friday, McCarthy said he was unsure whether Jones would be able to practice when on-field preparation for the Dolphins begins Wednesday.
- Josh Boyd: The defensive end was inactive against the Vikings after he sustained a knee injury against the Chicago Bears Sept. 28. His injury prompted the Packers to promote rookie Luther Robinson from the practice squad the day of the Vikings game. McCarthy said he was hopeful Boyd would be able to practice Wednesday.
- Brad Jones: The inside linebacker actually returned against the Vikings but did not reclaim his starting spot from Jamari Lattimore. Jones, who missed three games because of a quadriceps injury, played just nine snaps on defense, and all but one came during the late stages of the blowout victory. Said McCarthy: "We're going to need more than 11 [players on defense]. It's good to have Brad back out there, and Jamari's doing an excellent job."
- Jarrett Boykin: McCarthy was less optimistic about the No. 3 receiver's chances of practicing Wednesday. Boykin missed the last two games because of a groin injury he sustained in practice leading up to the Bears game. Boykin also had been listed on the injury report with a knee injury that week. Rookie Davante Adams has taken over as the No. 3 receiver, and in those two games he has three catches for 39 yards and one touchdown (the first of his career).
- Sam Barrington: The backup linebacker missed Thursday's game because of a hamstring injury, which is especially concerning because his rookie season last year ended because of the same injury in Week 9.
- JC Tretter: The projected starting center remains on the temporary injured reserve list but is eligible to begin practicing Oct. 13 and could return to play following the bye week. Tretter sustained a fracture in his knee during the Aug. 22 preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. However, it's not a given that Tretter would get his starting job back considering how well rookie Corey Linsley has performed.
Jones, the opening-game starter, was declared active for Thursday night's game against the Minnesota Vikings but will not return to the starting lineup, the team announced before the game. He will be available for backup and special-teams duties.
Lattimore ranks third on the team in tackles with 26 (according to the team's official count, which is based on the coaches' film review) despite not playing a single snap from scrimmage in Week 1.
The Packers also activated defensive tackle Luther Robinson, who was promoted from the practice squad a few hours before the game.
With the Packers back at 53 on their roster for the first time in two weeks, they had to declare seven players inactive. They were receiver Jarrett Boykin, quarterback Scott Tolzien, cornerback Demetri Goodson, linebacker Carl Bradford, linebacker Sam Barrington, center Garth Gerhart and defensive end Josh Boyd. Three of the inactives – Boykin, Barrington and Boyd – were injury-related scratches.
The Vikings' inactives included quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, meaning Christian Ponder will make his first start of the season.
The groin injury Boykin sustained in practice last week turned out to be more severe than originally thought. Boykin also missed last Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears.
"I don't know if he's going to be ready for Miami," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, referring to the Oct. 12 game against the Dolphins.
Boykin began the season as the No. 3 receiver, which is essentially a starting spot considering how much the Packers use three wideouts. However, he has only two catches for 17 yards in three games.
In Boykin's absence against the Bears, rookie Davante Adams played 37 of 52 snaps and caught two passes for 18 yards. In his last three games, Adams has nine catches for 79 yards. Fellow rookie Jeff Janis also made his debut against the Bears, but played only one snap and was not targeted.
"Davante has been doing a good job," McCarthy said. "He's taking advantage of his opportunities. I would think they would tilt the coverage to Jordy [Nelson] more this week than we've seen. With that, Davante will probably have more opportunities. Jeff is ready to play. He's doing all the little things. We'll see if he gets some time tomorrow night."
For information on the Vikings' injury situation, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, check out Vikings reporter Ben Goessling's latest report.
Here's the Packers' full injury report:
WR Jarrett Boykin (groin)
LB Sam Barrington (hamstring)
DT Josh Boyd (knee)
LB Brad Jones (quadriceps)
G T.J. Lang (not injury related)
OLB Clay Matthews (groin)
OLB Mike Neal (hip)
"I'm not saving players for anyone," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. "That's not the way we operate."
But the fact Matthews came out of the victory over the Bears without any lingering issues from the groin injury that limited him to 52 of the 78 defensive plays worked out well for this week.
Although the Packers did not practice on Monday, they still had to submit an official injury report for Thursday's game against the Vikings. Here's the full report:
Here’s the full injury report*:
- LB Sam Barrington (hamstring, did not practice)
- DE Josh Boyd (knee, did not practice)
- WR Jarrett Boykin (groin, did not practice)
- LB Brad Jones (quadriceps, limited participation)
- OLB Clay Matthews (groin, limited participation)
*Participation levels were estimates because the Packers did not practice.
He was declared inactive after sustaining a groin injury in practice last week. He had already been listed on the injury with a knee injury.
Boykin has only two catches for 17 yards this season while splitting time with rookie Davante Adams (seven catches for 61 yards). The Packers have used their three-receiver set more than any other personnel group this season.
But Boykin being declared inactive has opened the door for another rookie receiver, Jeff Janis, to get his first shot. The seventh-round pick from Saginaw Valley State was declared active for the first time Sunday.
There were no other surprises on the Packers' inactive list, which featured just six players because they remain one short on their 53-man roster.
Here's the full list of Packers inactives: