Positional Battlegrounds: Outside Linebackers

In Part 9 of our series, two players who are out with injuries — Nick Perry and Mike Neal — will vie for playing time behind Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers at a crowded outside linebacker group.

Packer Report previews the start of Green Bay Packers training camp with a positional series focused solely on the battles that will be won and lost during the dog days (and nights) of July and August. We continue with the outside linebackers.

Battle No. 1: Matthews and who?

Presumably, Julius Peppers will join Clay Matthews as the starting outside linebackers. After all, the team didn’t hand Peppers — a likely future Hall of Famer — a $7.5 million signing bonus to be nothing more than a 15-snaps-per-game role player.

Much has been said about the 34-year-old Peppers recording only seven sacks last season — his fewest since 2007. However, it’s worth noting that Peppers had two sacks and no passes defensed in his first seven games but five sacks and four passes defensed in his final nine. If Peppers were truly out of gas, those numbers probably would be flip-flopped.

“No doubt about it,” cornerback Tramon Williams said when asked on Saturday if Peppers would make a difference. “Any time you add a guy like that — we don’t have many guys who are built like him or can move like him at that size, who can make a transition at that size from a D-tackle to an outside linebacker. It’s actually really amazing to see him out there.”

The coaching staff has spoken highly of Peppers making the transition to a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive lineman after spending his previous 12 seasons as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. Time will tell, however, if he has what it takes to stop the run on one play and drop into coverage the next.

“I think he has that opportunity to still play with his hand on the ground,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “Right now, he just chooses to do some of the things we’re asking him to do out of the two-point stance. Julius has been great. He’s really come in and he’s shown a lot of poise in what he’s doing. He doesn’t say a lot. The guy comes to work, he works hard, he gets in line. You would never know that this is one of the premier players in the league. He just goes about his business as far as keeping his head down, working hard and  whatever we’ve asked him to do so far he’s had a great attitude in trying to get it done.”

Battle No. 2: Who’s next?

Outside linebacker is an incredibly grueling position. That’s why Matthews has missed nine games over the past two seasons and why injuries have slowed or sidelined most of the other outside linebackers since the implementation of the 3-4 scheme in 2009.

So, while Nick Perry and Mike Neal are gone — they’re on the physically-unable-to-perform list after failing their physicals — they shouldn’t be forgotten.

Following last sesaon, then-outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said Perry “can be as good as he wants to be” and was “tracking,” despite playing in only 17 of a possible 32 regular-season games. Following Greene’s resignation, Moss was elevated from inside linebackers coach to supervise the entire linebacker corps. He had a much different tone about Perry than his predecessor, saying following one of the offseason practices that the 2012 first-round pick had “done absolutely zero” in his brief career. That commentary was a bit harsh and spoke of the coaching staff’s growing frustration. In 11 games (six starts) in 2013, Perry had four sacks and tied for the team lead with three forced fumbles. Before breaking his foot in the fifth game of the season, Perry had three sacks and two forced fumbles. He missed five of the next six games, then had one sack and one forced fumble in the final five games.

Neal, who spent his first three seasons at defensive end, was supposed to man the “elephant” position last season until all of the injuries at outside linebacker forced him to be locked in at that position. He played about as well as you could expect, with five sacks, 16 quarterback hits and a game-changing forced fumble against Atlanta. However, he had the worst snaps-per-tackle rate and the most missed tackles among the outside linebackers. That mixed bag meant he had to settle for a two-year, $8 million contract in free agency.

“He played the most snaps as an outside backer last year,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He gained experience there. I think he’s a lot further along at that position than really what he was at any time last year. He’s a guy when you put your dime defense out there, he can play either inside or outside. He gives you flexibility in terms of if you want to leave him inside and go from a four-down look or if you want to go to a 3-2 look, he can become an outside guy for you. I feel good about where Mike is. He’s further ahead than he was this time last year and we were just kind of experimenting with him at that position last year.”

Perry missed the entire offseason due to foot and ankle injuries dating to last season and failed his pre-training camp physical. So did Neal, due to what coach Mike McCarthy called a “core” injury on Saturday. With both players still relatively new to the position, the injuries are complicating their development.

“It’s definitely a different mountain,” McCarthy said. “You can break it down even further than that. You’ve got 15 padded practices. So that’s really the emphasis of urgency and the importance of every single one of those reps.”

Battle No. 3: How many will stick?

The Packers had five outside linebackers on their roster last season but almost certainly will keep at least one more this year. Not only did they sign Peppers, but they used a fourth-round pick on Carl Bradford, a big-time playmaker at Arizona State.

“I’m sure that once we get the pads on, I think he’s going to show himself really well,” Moss said. “I think his game is going to be a lot of power and a lot of will. Just what I’ve seen so far, I think he’s going to be an impressive player once we get the pads on.

Plus, rugged Andy Mulumba (undrafted, 2013) and athletic Nate Palmer (sixth round, 2013) are back, and Jay Elliott and Adrian Hubbard were added in undrafted free agency. Mulumba played about 100 more snaps than Palmer because of his strength against the run. Hubbard (6-foot-6) is long, tall and explosive but didn’t do much in 2013 after a strong season for Alabama in 2012. Elliott (6-foot-3) isn’t as explosive as Hubbard but he’s also long. He was much more productive than Hubbard — against obviously lesser competition at Toledo — with nine sacks and five forced fumbles. Both played outside linebacker in 3-4 schemes in college.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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