If Matthews Goes Outside, Who Plays Inside?

The Packers probably can't move Clay Matthews back to outside linebacker unless they draft a starting inside linebacker. The man who runs the NFL's scouting department weighs in on the top middle linebacker candidates. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The decision to move Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews into a part-time role at inside linebacker rescued the Green Bay Packers’ going-nowhere defense and saved the season.

So where does Matthews line up in 2015?

“Clay’s an outside linebacker,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday.

With an asterisk.

To take Matthews out of the equation at inside linebacker means replacing him with somebody. And the team isn’t exactly overflowing with in-house candidates. A.J. Hawk (13 regular-season starts in 2014, career franchise leader in tackles) and Brad Jones (one start this season but 22 in 2012 and 2013) presumably are going to be released, and Jamari Lattimore (five starts this season) is not expected back as an unrestricted free agent. Hawk, Jones and Lattimore took up a combined $10.4 million of the salary cap this season.

Assuming their departure, that leaves only Sam Barrington, who played well in starting the final five games of the regular season and both playoff games, and rookies Carl Bradford (no snaps as fourth-round pick) and Joe Thomas (practice squad as undrafted free agent).

The obvious way to fill the void is through the draft. Inside linebackers who can play against the run and pass, however, are hard to find. Last year, C.J. Mosley (Baltimore) and Ryan Shazier (Pittsburgh) were the only first-round prospects, and they were gone before the Packers were on the clock. This year, Mississippi State’s towering and versatile Benardrick McKinney (6-4, 245) is the lone first-round prospect, according to Dave-Te’ Thomas, the longtime head of the NFL’s scouting department and a frequent contributor to Packer Report.

“It does not matter which of three linebacker positions he plays – McKinney will produce at a high level,” Thomas said.

“Becoming a top-flight linebacker was not the plan when the youngster joined the Mississippi State program. McKinney was a big and physical dual-threat quarterback with a live arm and good productivity coming out of high school. He could throw on the run and improvise out of the pocket, but with his good blend of size and athleticism, along with his height, large frame and impressive straight-line speed, linebacker became the position his coaches chose for him.”

He made an immediate impact with 102 tackles as a freshman, and he added 70 tackles with eight for losses last year as a redshirt junior. He played middle linebacker but has the quickness and lateral agility to play at outside linebacker.

McKinney, who runs a 4.62 in the 40, “shows explosive acceleration coming off the snap and above-average hand-eye coordination,” reads a portion of Thomas’ scouting report, which is provided to teams to supplement their scouting efforts. “He has the ability to pursue plays along the sidelines, showing balance and quickness to make plays on the move. He has above-average change-of-direction agility and, when he is focused, flashes the lateral speed needed to make plays from the backside. It is very hard for a quarterback to get McKinney to bite on misdirection or play-action fakes. He has a keen sense for the ball, especially on plays in front of him, especially playing vs. the run. He is alert dropping back in zone coverage. He shows awareness sifting through trash and his anticipation skills will generally see him get to the ball quicker than most, but even with his loose hips, he does struggle to recover when he over-pursues.

“McKinney is a much better tackler on the move than when trying to make plays in-line. He holds his ground well at the point of attack, but there are times when he gets caught up in the battle too much and is slow to shed vs. inside running plays. He fills quickly, but is best when unblocked. When he slips through and avoids blocks shooting the gaps, he is able to use his quickness to close.”

As was the case last year with Shazier, who the Packers coveted, there’s no guarantee McKinney – Thomas’ No. 21 overall prospect -- will be available when Green Bay is up at No. 30. That would force them to get their man a bit later.

Miami’s Denzel Perryman (second round), California’s Eric Kendricks (second or third round) and Georgia’s Ramik Wilson (second or third round) are next on Thomas’ middle linebacker pecking order. Here are snippets of Thomas’ scouting report on each:

Perryman (5-11, 248; 4.74 40) reminds me a lot of former Hurricane Jon Beason, sans the cumulative injury issues. He’s undersized but has a squat frame and plays with true aggression, but his biggest weaknesses are that he is not able to prevent offensive linemen from engulfing him and he is very inconsistent shooting the gaps, as he can be fooled by misdirection and play action. If he manages to get under a blocker, he has the array of moves to escape, but if he decides to play ‘Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots,’ he’s not going to win those battles. Some teams envision him playing on the outside, but he lacks great angling concept and lacks the burst to recover when beaten along the edge.”

Kendricks (6-0, 232; 4.67) is another undersized type that is more suited for weak-side outside linebacker (in a 4-3). He’s had a fair share of nagging injuries that leave me questioning his durability and threshold for pain. He’s also entering the Combine with doctors real curious about his right ankle, thanks to his 2013 surgery, as he seemed to lack the recovery quickness needed, as he was apt to bit on play-action too much last year. He is not a natural hands fighter and because of past shoulder problems, he does not always position correctly (takes a side often), as he still may not be confident in the shoulder’s integrity to stand up from a big hit. He’s a pile jumper, one that prefers to work around blockers rather than taking them on and in the open field, he struggles to break down and gets too high when attempting to make plays vs. ball-carriers in the second level.”

Wilson (6-2, 234; 4.72) is a respected team leader, but I question his upper-body strength and recognition skills. He needs to refine his backpedal, as he takes too many false steps and fails to recover when a tight end or slot receiver gets behind him. He is a lot like Kendricks – a poor hands fighter who spends too much time fending off blockers, who have had good success in latching on to his jersey. He has the speed to close on plays in front of him, making him perhaps a better fit for the “will” position rather than remain a “mike” guy, as he is quick to redirect and has some of the more efficient lateral moves in this inside linebacker draft class.”

A sleeper in the class is Clemson’s Stephone Anthony (6-2, 238; 4.59), who is considered a fourth-round prospect but could shoot up boards if he has a big Scouting Combine. Thomas called him Clemson’s best linebacker since Anthony Simmons was Seattle’s first-round pick in 1989. Vic Beasley might be a top-15 pick but Anthony was considered the MVP of the Tigers’ defense. Among active FBS defenders, Anthony ranked 23rd with 329 career tackles, ninth with 210 solo tackles and tied for 15th with 34.5 tackles for losses.

“Anthony is a very athletic defender, showing the hip swerve and flexibility you find in a player that some teams might feel will be more advantageous as a weak-side outside linebacker rather than performing as a classic middle linebacker,” his scouting report reads. “He shows suddenness in his initial move off the ball and gets to top speed quickly. He is very quick coming off the snap, staying low in his pads while generating quick lateral movements to string the plays wide. He has the natural ability to always anticipate the flow of the ball.

“Anthony is a solid wrap-up tackler who extends his arms properly to stalk and secure. He is the type that collides with ball carriers upon initial contact and has the strength to shed blocks and stay on the ball. He shows ease of movement getting to the ball when working in space. He has the leg drive and strength to get the ball carrier on the ground instantly. He takes no wasted steps in transition and is quick to turn coming out of his backpedal. He flips his hips properly and plays at a good pad level. He shows no stiffness in his turns and this allows him to drop off quickly.”

Some other names to remember as Day 3 candidates, Thomas said, are Kansas’ Benjamin Heeney, Texas’ Jordan Hicks, Penn State’s Michael-Hull, Baylor’s injury-prone Bryce Hager and Stanford’s James Vaughters.

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