Overall – I expect big things from this unit. I particularly expect more turnovers – both picks and fumbles (causing and recovering). I also expect better overall pass coverage. However, I do have some concerns this LB unit may be stretched thin at times if the D-Line doesn’t come together.
Nick Barnett – Barnett has become one of the better linebackers in the NFL. He plays hard, he’s aggressive, he appears to be unwilling to settle for anything but elite play and finally, he’s starting to get the respect he deserves from teams around the league. In the middle of the field, the Packers have a big-time player. This year, I expect Barnett to be phenomenal. The last couple years he has had coverage lapses or missed angles here and there, but the lapses seem to be fewer and farther between. He has made himself a very consistent performer and he gives us the luxury of not having to worry about performance coming from his position: we can safely assume there will be high quality performance. He also has worked through the issue of having a number of different D-coordinators over his career so now that there is some consistency there he’ll really be able to shine. Big year from Barnett – Pro Bowl.
AJ Hawk – First things first – I hope his injury is nothing serious but frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a “chest sprain”. Is a “chest sprain” this year’s “sports hernia” or “lisfranc injury” (for new readers, each year, Packergeeks accuses the sports world of making up a new injury). I hope he’s OK but I would imagine anything in the chest region for a LB has to be quite limiting. Anyway, assuming he recovers fine and is ready to go at the start of the season…AJ Hawk is above average, but that’s as far as I’ll go right now. I know there are many out there who would disagree already with that assessment, but the fact is, he has been very good at times and noticeably absent at others. Toward the end of last year and especially this preseason, however, Hawk has looked a bit more instinctive. It is almost as though he is settling in to the defensive scheme and letting instinct guide rather than worry about where he should be. Because of this, I expect a very big year from Hawk this year. I think he will cause more turnovers this year than in his previous two combined, make some big hits and pick off a few passes mostly due to seriously improved coverage skills.
Brady Poppinga – Many of you are aware of the Packergeek criticism of Poppinga. He has been no better than mediocre since becoming a starter, and he was deemed not good enough as recently as this past off-season to bring in a direct challenger. He has apparently won that challenge from all indications. Poppinga will have the benefit of being in a system with which he is familiar and my guess is the game has probably slowed down a bit for him by now. Poppinga is very aware of his coverage problems and my guess is that knowing his attitude, he put in quite a bit of extra time working to correct this. Even Poppinga admitted that he has had a difficult time watching tapes of himself from last year because he made so many errors. Poppinga is a good guy and a likeable guy, but for me, this is it – he either busts out this year or the team needs to think hard about replacing him. Sure that would be awkward to do that considering the contract extension – but that is why this Packergeek wouldn’t have given him the extension…yet. One thing I do expect Poppinga to do well this year is rush the QB in the 2-4 line-up. If I had to make a prediction though on how he’ll play this year, despite 4 years of ripping on him, I actually think he might be pretty good this year.
Abdul Hodge – Hodge was very good at Iowa a few years ago now. His injuries had pushed him far into the background until this summer. Now, he appears to be more than ready to jump on the field and play. I’m not sure re the explanation for it, but it appears as though both Hodge and Bishop are slated as back-up middle linebackers, and not so much back-ups for the Sam and Will LB positions. Perhaps it’s just something I don’t understand, but I do wonder why Hodge and/or Bishop wouldn’t have been able to compete for Poppinga’s spot. If Poppinga gets it together this year, he’ll buy himself some job security probably for a couple more years. But if he struggles at all, I have a growing feeling the coaches may find it hard to keep Hodge off the field if he is tearing it up on special teams – which I’m quite sure will happen.
Brandon Chillar – Not sure what he’s done so far except seemingly lose the competition with Poppinga. I have not been overly impressed with his play early on here, but he has had a few moments of veteran-savvy-kind-of-thinking, which could prove valuable. He does play hard and I suspect he, like Poppinga, will really relish the role of rushing the QB on some of the new blitz packages. I expect a solid season from him, but probably nothing special.
Desmond Bishop – what happened to Bishop? Last year, he seemed to be a monster out there with some huge hits in the preseason. Now, he seems to be somewhat forgotten. Having seen him make some fantastic plays last year, especially early on, I know he can do it, but I just haven’t seen it yet. He should make the team but I don’t see much more than some special teams action.
Tracy White – I expect more special teams domination. I still believe that he and the special teams unit of last year didn’t quite get enough credit. They kept opposing returners in check for the most part and did some fine hole-creating going the other way. This guy is really good on special teams.
Danny Lansanah – know zero about this guy, did see him on the field but he wasn’t doing much. Possible practice squad candidate considering he’s a rookie.
Spencer Havner – may be the victim of numbers here. He’s been a practice squad guy before and frankly I’m not sure he’s eligible for the practice squad again. He may be good on special teams, but that may be his only chance.