Preliminary Depth Chart Taking Shape


A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett are projected as the two starting inside linebackers in the Packers' new 3-4 defensive scheme.

Speaking to the media in various settings on Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Head Coach Mike McCarthy and General Manager Ted Thompson started to drop some hints about what the base front seven will look like in the Packers' new 3-4 defense.

McCarthy and Thompson each spoke with the team's beat reporters, held a formal press conference, and also did interviews with Sirius NFL radio on Friday before heading into a weekend of player evaluations and interviews in preparation for the April draft.

In short, if the Packers were to line up for their first practice tomorrow on the 3-4 scheme, the starting defensive linemen would likely be Ryan Pickett at nose tackle and Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly at the two defensive ends. Behind them would be Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk as the two inside linebackers, and Aaron Kampman as one of the outside linebackers.

"You have a base defense depth chart, but you also have players that play multiple positions in base and so forth," McCarthy said. "But based on how our board is set, just to line guys up, that is accurate."

The other outside backer right now could be Brady Poppinga, though McCarthy said linebackers Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop could potentially play inside or outside in the new scheme, while Jeremy Thompson and Jason Hunter also would be in the mix at outside linebacker.

In addition, it's always possible, if not likely, that a new acquisition through free agency or the draft would compete for a starting job as well. So the rough alignment is by no means set in stone, but that appears to be a starting point for the new defense.

Starting point is the key phrase, though, because as Thompson and McCarthy both pointed out, the base defense with the actual 3-4 front will only be used about half the time. Nearly all NFL teams use what are referred to as "sub" packages, with five (nickel) and six (dime) defensive backs that vary the alignment up front.

That could make a player like Kampman, the Packers' only Pro Bowler among the current front seven

candidates, even more difficult to account for. Much has been made of Kampman transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker, but the reality is he'll probably line up in a three-point stance at the line of scrimmage as often if not more often than in a two-point stance off the ball.

McCarthy feels with Kampman not necessarily lining up in the same spot all the time, he'll be harder for opposing offenses to target in game-planning. Either way, there's little concern about Kampman successfully making the switch and remaining an impact player.

"Specifically with Aaron, we think he has tremendous ability to change his quickness into power, which is one of the main things you're looking for from the '34' spot, because whether it's the tackle or the offensive running back turning out on you, you want to turn your speed into power, and we think he can do that," Thompson said.

"In terms of the dropping (into coverage) and things like that, Aaron's a better athlete -- everybody always ascribes him to be an overachiever, and I think he's a better football player, a better athlete than that. He's looking forward to it, he's excited about it, and we are too."

In addition to the other outside linebacker spot, though, that potential front-seven alignment does have a couple of question marks.

For one, Barnett is coming back from a torn ACL in his knee sustained in Week 10 at Minnesota last season. The start of training camp would be just under nine months from the time of the injury, and that appears to be the working target for Barnett's return at this point. That's not to say he won't be involved sooner, though, in on-field work learning the new defense, even if it's not at full speed.

"I would just say with this type of injury, there is always the need to be more cautious than rushing him out there," McCarthy said, later hinting that Barnett and Hawk as the two inside linebackers may be used more in pressure packages than in the past.

"I know with the defensive change, I know Nick's personality that he'll probably want to get out there sooner than later. But I think training camp would definitely be something that is a target. We'll see how he goes through the OTAs and maybe the last mini-camp there in June."

Jenkins also will be returning from a season-ending injury, though his torn pectoral muscle was sustained much earlier (Week 4 at Tampa Bay) and hence his surgery was much earlier as well.

Another factor in the depth on the defensive line will be Justin Harrell, the former first-round pick whose first two seasons have been marred by injuries. And while his current rehab is going intentionally slow, the back problems that cost him most of 2008 don't appear to require additional surgery, according to McCarthy.

Almost every member of the Packers' personnel department and coaching staff is in Indianapolis for the Combine, which continues into the early part of next week. The trip is actually a brief respite for the defensive coaches, who have been meeting on a daily basis to put together the playbook and the installation plan for the new defensive scheme, a process new defensive coordinator Dom Capers has gone through with multiple teams in the past.

"That's been impressive to watch," McCarthy said. "It's really going through every single page of the playbook, building the lesson plans for the first interaction with the players. They went through every aspect of the base defense, just completed yesterday for the most part the sub packages and the situational defenses. It's a very grueling, ongoing, detail-oriented, checking and re-checking process, and Dom has done a great job with that so far."

The players will get their first real taste of it in mid-March when the offseason program begins. Players and coaches work one-on-one during offseason sessions and that time will be crucial this year for defensive players to learn the basics of the new scheme, before full-squad OTAs and mini-camps take place later in the spring.

{sportsad300}The immediate task on defense, however, is to evaluate the current college crop and find players best suited to succeed in the new scheme. Thompson said the new scheme doesn't really change how the scouting staff evaluates players, but it does have an effect on their ratings of players in terms of their potential value to the team.

"I keep saying this over and over and I might sound like a broken record, but football players are football players at the end of the day," Thompson said. "There are no prototype absolutes in football. There are guys that don't fit the prototype. James Harrison (of the Steelers), the NFL Defensive Player of the Year this year, he does not fit your prototype 3-4 outside linebacker, but he's a great player because he is a football guy."

Added McCarthy: "The change is more philosophical. What it does for your team from a personnel standpoint, it gives us an opportunity to be a bigger, more physical football team."

Ultimately, the Packers expect their new defense to provide two elements deemed necessary for success, particularly as four- and five-receiver sets are used more frequently by opposing offenses - consistent pressure on the quarterback and a level of unpredictability.

"You have to create as much confusion as you can on the quarterback, because the quarterback is running the show," Thompson said. "There has to be doubt in the offense's mind as to who's coming, when they're coming, and how they're coming. I think the '34' leads itself to be able to create more confusion from the offense's point of view. That's what we're trying to get to.

"Pressure on the quarterback is the No. 1 stopper of offenses. As skilled as the quarterbacks and receivers and tight ends and stuff are in this league, you cannot think you can stop them on a consistent basis if you just drop and let them know what you're doing all the time. So that's the whole point."

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