Those words spoken by Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy came a day after a Week 10 thrashing of the Chicago Bears. In a 55-14 decision, Clay Matthews, for the first time in his career, took a majority of the defensive snaps at inside linebacker. He had previously earned his keep as an outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme.
Though Matthews hardly looked out of place in that game or over the second half of the season playing inside, his role for 2015 has not yet been clearly defined. But offseason signs and his hefty contract, not to mention his dynamic skills, make him a natural fit for being a multiple-position player.
After signing a five-year extension two years ago this month, Matthews is averaging $13.2 million per season or what the Packers might have to pay two top inside linebackers on the open market. In total value and average per season, Matthews’ contract is the highest of any linebacker in the NFL. And in 2014 he earned it.
By Pro Football Focus’ count, Matthews played 1,029 snaps a season ago (18 games), his most since the 2010 Super Bowl season (19 games) and the most among front-seven defensive players for the Packers. Only four 3-4 scheme outside linebackers in the league played more total defensive snaps.
Having Matthews move around and using the full array of his abilities was something Charles Woodson envisioned when the two were teammates in Green Bay from 2009 through 2012. One of the NFL’s top defensive backs and craftiest playmakers of all-time would urge defensive coordinator Dom Capers to move Matthews around and make him a moving target for opposing offenses.
The Packers never did too much position switching with Matthews until last season, when it became more of a necessity. With A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones falling by the wayside and Jamari Lattimore sidelined by injury, Matthews made the on-the-fly transition to inside linebacker and was no worse for the wear. In fact, his production got much better.
Over the last eight regular-season games, Matthews posted 42 tackles and 8.5 sacks, up from 27 and 2.5 over the first eight games. And though Matthews often moved back to a more familiar spot outside on pass-rushing downs, his presence in the base defense on the inside helped the Packers’ run defense improve from last in the league at midseason to 23rd by the end.
After gashing the Packers for 235 rushing yards in the first meeting of the season (Sept. 28), the Bears managed just 55 yards on 24 carries in the second (Nov. 9) with Matthews playing extensively on the inside for the first time. Matthews posted a season-high 10 tackles, a sack and two quarterback hurries that night.
The Packers have yet to sign an unrestricted free agent inside linebacker this offseason so they head into the NFL Draft even thinner than the year before at the position. Hawk, Jones and Lattimore are all gone and the only holdover besides Matthews is Sam Barrington, who started nine games in 2014. After that, the Packers have only three other inside linebackers on the roster — Carl Bradford, Joe Thomas and Josh Francis. Bradford transitioned from outside to inside during training camp but was inactive for all the Packers’ games during his rookie season. Thomas spent time in training camp and on the practice squad for the Packers last season. And Josh Francis is a 24-year-old who spent time in the CFL and IFL over the past year.
Unlike Bradford, no other outside linebacker on the roster would appear to be a fit for transitioning to the inside this offseason. So, undoubtedly, the upcoming NFL Draft might shape what direction the Packers go. Inside linebacker is a top priority but it would seem unlikely a rookie could come in and play as well if not better than Matthews on the inside. Plus, the Packers are deeper at outside linebacker with Julius Peppers returning, so there is no immediate need to have Matthews play all of his snaps on the outside if McCarthy sticks to his 2014 mantra of “more personnel, less scheme.”
Matthews is making $4 million per season more than the average of the top 10 outside linebackers in the league. Lawrence Timmons of the Pittsburgh Steelers makes the most per season among inside linebackers at $9.56 million.
Though Matthews’ base salaries of $7.6 million, $8.65 million, and $10.1 million over the next three seasons seem manageable, his salary cap hits of $12.7 million, $13.75 million, and $15.2 million put the Packers in a tighter spot if he plays out his contract terms. Those numbers seem a little more justified with Matthews not just playing inside or outside but making plays from various different spots as a “football player,” as McCarthy put it.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org