Call me an old curmudgeon, but the sight of Frank Zombo starting against the Colts didn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Sure it’s a nice story – an undrafted free agent making a serious run at a spot on the final roster while learning a new position – but I see it as more of an indictment on just how weak the depth is at outside linebacker. And since this position is unquestionably one of the most important in a 3-4 defense, consider me more concerned than excited. After over 20 practices and three preseason games, Zombo, Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chillar are defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ best options behind starters Clay Matthews and Brad Jones. You’d be hard-pressed to find a weaker collection of backups in the entire league.
Zombo, who had 25.5 sacks as a defensive end in college, is a tough guy who goes all-out on every play. But he’s also a marginal athlete whose lack of lower body strength and explosiveness will almost certainly be exposed the more he plays against quality opposition. The feeling here is that the former Central Michigan standout will never be more than a No. 4 or 5 outside linebacker at this level.
The fourth or fifth outside linebacker is also the role Poppinga should fill on a 3-4 defense. I know Capers, assistant Kevin Greene and some members of the media have fawned all over the former BYU star this summer, but I don’t buy it. He still looks like the same guy to me. Poppinga will hold his own vs. the run, but he’ll be easily stymied as a pass rusher by any above-average tackle and he’ll be abused in coverage by any team with a creative offensive coordinator and a competent quarterback.
As far as Chillar is concerned, I expressed my feelings about his ability – or should I say his inability – to play outside linebacker a few weeks ago. The fact that he’s back taking the majority of his snaps inside suggests Capers quickly came around to my way of thinking. In short, he now realizes that Chillar should be no better that the fourth or fifth option at this position.
Notice a trend? Green Bay has a bevy of No. 4 and 5 outside linebackers, but nary a No. 3. This is even more of a concern when you consider that Matthews has been battling a hamstring injury for the past few weeks and Jones has already missed significant time this summer with back and shoulder problems. And while both players should be ready for the opener, it’s safe to say that neither will be compared to Cal Ripken Jr. any time soon.
If all of this isn’t concerning enough, just remember, we still don’t know if Jones has what it takes to be a legitimate starter in the NFL. While he showed definite potential as a rookie last season, the jury is still out. But that’s a post for another day. For today, feel free to cheer like crazy for Zombo, but just remember, the higher he climbs on the depth chart, the higher the level of your trepidation should be.