Jason Wilde said:
GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers have cast their lot. By season's end, we will know how Desmond Bishop fares with the Minnesota Vikings and what D.J. Smith does with the San Diego Chargers.
Will they return to their pre-injury forms? Will they stay healthy? Will they be productive with their new teams, who wasted little time bringing them aboard after the Packers cast them adrift?
But even if Bishop doesn't make it through the entire 2013 season without reinjuring the hamstring tendon in his right leg that he ruptured in last year's preseason opener in San Diego, and even if Smith's surgically rebuilt left knee, in which he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in Houston last October, falls apart, the team's starting inside linebackers — A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones — will still be scrutinized all season long.
The Packers essentially made up their minds about who'd be starting in the middle of their defense in March. First, the team restructured Hawk's contract, getting him to accept a pay cut of $7.25 million over the final three years of his deal. In return, they gave him more than $2 million in guaranteed money in 2013. That kind of guaranteed money made it clear that Hawk would return as a starter.
Then, the team re-signed Jones, who took over for Bishop and Smith after both were lost for the season, to a three-year, $11.75 million contract. Jones, who shifted to inside linebacker during training camp after playing outside his first three seasons, made only one unrestricted free-agent visit — to the Tennessee Titans — before re-signing with the Packers.
Jones started the final 10 regular-season games and both playoff games, serving as a three-down linebacker and calling the defense in the huddle. He registered 102 regular-season tackles, two sacks and had one forced fumble, then had 16 tackles in two playoff games.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Jones played 828 snaps and finished with a 7.3 grade in their grading system. (The only other linebacker with a positive grade was Clay Matthews; Hawk finished at minus-2.2 and Smith at minus-2.0.) Jones' plus-4.6 coverage grade was the fourth-highest among all middle/inside linebackers league-wide.
The website named Jones <a href="https://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2013/05/24/secret-superstar-brad-jones/">one of its "Secret Superstars"</a> and predicted he'd be a starter long before Bishop's release last month.
"Brad Jones impressed overall with everything he did, from taking over, run game, blitz — didn't have a chance to blitz as much as I would have liked — but his pass technique was excellent," inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. "Anytime he was matched up, whether they were running backs, tight ends or receivers, he did an excellent job."
Even Bishop himself saw it coming. Six days before his release, Bishop was told by the Packers that Hawk and Jones were going to be the opening-day starters and that the team would release him if it couldn't find a trade partner.
"It was always a possibility. In the back of my mind, I knew," Bishop said. "But it's just one of those things you don't really want to believe. I felt like if I could get out there and practice and show my progress and show I'm better and smarter and faster, maybe they could reconsider."
The Packers, though, apparently had no reservations about going with Hawk and Jones. Once those two made it through organized team activity practices unscathed, the team released Bishop, who signed a one-year deal with the Vikings a few days later.
With Bishop and Smith gone, the position went from overcrowded to one with questionable depth. Veteran journeyman Rob Francois re-upped with a one-year deal, but converted outside linebacker Jamari Lattimore, 2012 sixth-round pick Terrell Manning and rookie seventh-round pick Sam Barrington are unproven.
Hawk, the team's 2006 first-round pick, seemed to benefit from playing fewer snaps last season, as defensive coordinator Dom Capers increasingly used his dime packages (either two down linemen, three linebackers and six defensive backs, or one down lineman, four linebackers and six DBs in the "Bat" dime unit). By keeping Hawk off the field in those situations, he did less of the one thing that isn't his strength — pass coverage — while remaining solid in all other areas.
As a result, Hawk finished the season having played only 847 snaps, even though he started all 18 games including playoffs. He was credited with a team-high 142 regular-season tackles while adding three sacks.
Despite frequent criticism from fans who felt he hadn't lived up to the status of a top-5 draft pick, Hawk, who turned 29 in January, didn't feel the season vindicated him in any way.
"I think I've always been — I'm not trying to use a big word or anything — but intrinsically motivated, from within. I think you have to be. I don't want to have to rely on outside forces to motivate me. I don't want to have to rely on you guys saying something bad about me to get me to say, 'Oh man, I'm going to prove these guys wrong.' That's such a waste of my energy," Hawk said. "I'm not trying to be this new-age guru or whatever, but I don't want to do anything just to prove someone wrong. I'm not out there to prove anything to anybody but myself. I never use anything negative. I'm not going to sit there and say, 'The media or the coaches, I can't believe what they're saying about me, I'm going to show 'em.' No. What a waste of energy, man. I'd be exhausted by the end of the day. I'm doing it for the team and for myself."
What this team needs Hawk to do now is be more of a consistent playmaker. In 110 career regular-season games, Hawk has forced just two fumbles, recovered four and tallied 13.5 sacks. Stunningly, he hasn't forced a fumble since 2007, his second NFL season. If the Packers' much-ballyhooed commitment to forcing more fumbles is going to pay off, Hawk will have to be one of the players who delivers.
Over the past five seasons, including four under Capers, Charles Woodson led the team with 12 forced fumbles, including 11 from 2009 through 2012 in the 3-4 scheme. Bishop, despite not becoming a starter until midway through the 2010 season, forced eight — three in 2008, one in 2009 and two each in 2010 and 2011 before missing all of last season. Those two have something else in common, too: They're no longer on the roster.
"It's one of those areas that we've tried to look at and place emphasis on. We need to cause more and recover more fumbles," said Capers, whose top returning fumble-causers are Matthews (seven since 2009) and safety Morgan Burnett (four since 2010). "We're trying to make a concerted effort to go for that football."