Offseason Roster Analysis: Outside LB’s

The Packers' rotation is pretty well set with Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry back from last year. There will be a big battle for the final spot or two on the roster.

Peppers photo by Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY

The Green Bay Packers will begin three weeks of organized team activities following Memorial Day weekend, with the first of those that’s open to the public set for Thursday. We get you ready with a positional look at the team, which continues with the outside linebackers.

Depth chart

Veterans: Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal, Nick Perry, Jayrone Elliott, Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer.

Rookies and first-year players: Adrian Hubbard (undrafted, 2014), Jermauria Rasco (undrafted), James Vaughters (undrafted).

Noteworthy: Matthews had a team-high 11 sacks and Peppers was second with seven; they tied for second on the team with 17 quarterback hits, according to the coaches’ count. Peppers’ production was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Peppers forced four fumbles, recovered three fumbles and intercepted two passes for a total of nine turnover plays. He added two more forced fumbles in the playoffs to run his season total to 11. Peppers had only nine during his final two seasons in Chicago, and his best season in the NFL was eight with Carolina in 2009. Only Houston’s J.J. Watt had more in 2014 with 10. Compare Peppers’ production to that of Matthews, who has “just” seven turnover plays during the past three seasons combined and never more than six in a season. Down the depth chart, this will be the final season under contract for Perry and Neal. The Packers, not surprisingly, didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on Perry. The 2012 first-round pick had three sacks last season to give him nine for his career. However, opponents averaged 3.00 yards per carry when he was on the field compared to 4.29 yards per carry when he was on the sideline. That 1.29-yard difference was tops among the Packers’ regular defenders and second among the league’s outside linebackers. In three seasons at defensive end, Neal played 20 games and recorded 5.5 sacks. In the two seasons since moving to outside linebacker, Neal played in all 32 games with 9.5 sacks.

Offseason outlook

The star: Peppers was great but Matthews’ consistent excellence is what makes this defense go. His second half of the season should go down as one of the finest defensive performances in franchise history. Upon moving into a part-time role at inside linebacker during the final eight games, Matthews piled up 8.5 sacks. More importantly, he rescued a run defense that had been demolished during the first half of the season. Over the final eight games, Green Bay ranked fifth with 86.4 rushing yards allowed per game and sixth with 3.6 yards allowed per carry. He was one of just three defenders in the league with at least 10 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. (Houston’s Watt and Denver’s DeMarcus Ware were the others.)

The battle: Mulumba, Palmer and Elliott will have to hold off Hubbard, Rasco and Vaughters for the final spot or two on the roster. Palmer (knee) spent all of 2014 on injured reserve and Mulumba (knee) spent most of it on IR. Elliott, an undrafted free agent, led the NFL in sacks during the preseason and finished second on the team in special-teams tackles during the regular season. Hubbard, another undrafted free agent, spent his rookie year on the practice squad. Rasco and Vaughters are this year’s undrafted additions. Vaughters, like Palmer, could be in the mix on the inside.

Rookie impact: The Packers went to the 3-4 in 2009. In their first six drafts picking players for that defensive scheme, they selected six outside linebackers — including 2011 through 2014. That streak ended this year, with only Vaughters and Rasco added to the mix. Both players face long odds but the Packers have kept one undrafted rookie outside linebacker in each of the past five years. Vaughters (6-2, 248) had 6.5 sacks, 11 tackles for losses and two forced fumbles as a senior. He ran in 4.87 with a 32.5-inch vertical and a whopping 35 reps on the bench at pro day. Rasco (6-3, 247) had four sacks, 7.5 tackles for losses and one forced fumble as a senior. He ran in 4.77 with a 28.5-inch vertical and just 12 reps on the bench at pro day.

Quoteworthy: “Clay is an outside linebacker,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s a pass-rusher. That’s his premium position. I think it’s very evident after the bye week that moving Clay around, his productivity definitely went up. I’ve had people tell me in studies and so forth that his production is probably ranked as one of the highest, or the highest, of inside linebackers. Just the way he played the position, that’s a big credit to Clay. Clay is going to both meetings. He’s getting ready to play wherever he needs to play. The most important thing is creating opportunities for your big-time players to make plays, and that’s what we’ll do with Clay.”

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.


Packer Report Top Stories