Grading on a Salary Cap Curve: Outside LB’s

In Part 7 of our series, we grade the performance of a deep and talented unit led by versatile Clay Matthews and veteran Julius Peppers. Matthews had a monster season or, more accurately, a monster second half of the season. (Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY)

We’re taking a different spin on everyone’s favorite end-of-season exercise — player grades — by grading on a curve. Building a roster means building around the restraints of the salary cap, so our grades are based relative to the players’ salary-cap worth on the roster.

Part 7 of our “Grading on a Salary Cap Curve” series continues with the outside linebackers. Salary cap figures are from a source with access to NFLPA salary data. Stats are regular season only unless noted. Sacks, tackles and quarterback hits are from the coaches’ tally. (Note: Pro Football Focus has a stat called “run stops,” which is used frequently here. It measures impact tackles and mirrors the Packers’ win/loss grading system. A run stop is defined as a solo tackle that results in an offensive failure: a first-and-10 tackle that holds the play to 3 yards or less, a second-down tackle that holds the play to less than half of the required yardage and any third-down tackle that prevents a first down.)

Clay Matthews

2014 cap number: $10,943,750.

2014 recap: What a season for one of the league’s most versatile players, who almost single-handedly fixed the defense by moving into a part-time role at inside linebacker at the bye. He started four games at left outside linebacker, six at right outside linebacker and six at inside linebacker. He recorded 69 tackles, one interception and two forced fumbles. As a pass rusher, he rang up a team-high 11 sacks and tied for second with 17 quarterback hits. Pro Football Focus had him ranked 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers with 48 pressures. Obviously, most of his production came after the switch. In eight games purely at outside linebacker, he had 27 tackles and 2.5 sacks. In the eight games as a hybrid, he had 42 tackles and 8.5 sacks. Of the 46 outside linebackers who played at least 25 percent of the snaps, he finished 31st in PFF’s run-stop percentage with a rate of 5.2 percent. (PFF didn’t separate his inside/outside duties.) In terms of total stops (including the passing game), he had nine in the first eight games and 25 in the next eight. That total of 34 tied for eighth among outside linebackers. What will be his role next season? That will be dependent on if the Packers can land a starting inside linebacker in the offseason.

Season grade: B-plus.

Julius Peppers

2014 cap number: $3,500,000.

2014 recap: The Bears thought Peppers was overpriced and over the hill. The Packers wouldn’t have been oh-so-close to the Super Bowl without him — not only because he was so good (PFF’s seventh-ranked outside linebacker) but his presence allowed the Packers to move Matthews. Peppers, who turned 35 on Jan. 18, picked his spots by necessity but provided a dramatic impact in big moments throughout the season. Peppers finished with 45 tackles, seven sacks (second on team), 17 quarterback hits (second on team), two interceptions and team-leading figures of three fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles. Those nine turnover plays trailed only Houston MVP candidate J.J. Watt. He added two forced fumbles against Dallas in the playoffs and was probably the Packers’ best defender against Seattle. After almost never playing in coverage in his career, he had as many pick-sixes (two) as completions allowed. On the down side, his run-stop percentage of 5.1 ranked 33rd of the aforementioned 46 3-4 outside linebackers and his 10 missed tackles were the fourth-most. At this price, he was a heck of a bargain. In 2015, his cap number soars to $12 million.

Season grade: A-minus.

Nick Perry

2014 cap number: $2,045,250.

2014 recap: Perry, a first-round pick in 2012, finished with 24 tackles, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 15 games (four starts). He added three sacks and one quarterback hit — down from his 2013 production of four sacks and eight quarterback hits in 11 games — but chipped in 1.5 sacks in the playoff win vs. Dallas. Say what you want about Perry’s impact as a top pick, but he fills an important role with his size and power. According to league data, teams averaged 1.29 yards less per carry with Perry in the game than with him on the sideline. That was the second-best differential on the roster and he was the only outside linebacker on the team with a negative differential (negative being good in this case). His 14 stops in 134 run-defense snaps gave him a run-stop percentage of 10.4 — best among the Packers’ outside linebackers and second among the league’s 3-4 outside backers. He missed only two tackles. He’ll probably never be an every-down performer due to his lack of quickness and coverage ability, but he’s got his niche.

Season grade: D-plus.

Mike Neal

2014 cap number: $3,750,000.

2014 recap: Neal’s transformation from pumped-up defensive lineman to spry outside linebacker has been remarkable. First of all, it’s kept him on the field. In two seasons at outside linebacker, he’s played all 32 regular-season games, compared to a total of 20 games in his first three seasons. This season, he contributed 41 tackles, 4.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits. He did well in coverage, too, with one reception in 26 coverage snaps — best at the position on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. Teams averaged 0.41 yards more per running play with Neal on the field, the worst figure at the position. He finished second among the Packers’ outside linebackers and 17th in the league with a run-stop percentage of 6.6. Neal missed only two tackles.

Season grade: C.

Jayrone Elliott

2014 cap number: $421,666.

2014 recap: Every year, the Packers find some undrafted free-agent find who makes the team at outside linebacker. This year, at the cost of a $5,000 signing bonus, it was Elliott. Now, can Elliott take the next step and actually be an impact player, or will he be just the next Frank Zombo, Dezman Moses or Vic So’oto and be out of town in a year? Elliott, with his explosion off the edge, might be different than the others. He was a dominant pass rusher at Toledo and a dominant pass rusher in the preseason. He faced lesser competition in both cases but you can only beat who you’re lined up against. Elliott didn’t play much on defense but he did finish second on the team with 15 tackles on special teams. If nothing else, he should be an asset in the kicking game until a spot opens in the defensive rotation.

Season grade: D.

Andy Mulumba

2014 cap number: $496,666.

2014 recap: In 2013, it was the rough-and-tumble Mulumba who went from undrafted to a valuable contributor on defense. He lasted just two games this season before going on injured reserve with a torn ACL (which opened the door for Elliott).

Season grade: Incomplete

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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