We continue our training camp positional series with the outside linebackers.
Starters: Julius Peppers, Mike Neal. Peppers, who turned 35 on Jan. 18 — the same day the Packers lost the NFC Championship Game — made his 13th season in the NFL one of his best. His seven sacks only hint at his impact. He added two interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. In two playoff games, he added 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Neal, playing outside linebacker in the base defense and defensive tackle at times in pass-rushing situations, recorded 4.5 sacks. The move to linebacker has saved his career. As a 294-pound defensive end, Neal played in 20 games in three seasons. As a 250-ish pound linebacker, he has played all 32 games the past two seasons. Humorously, the Packers list him at 285.
Top backup: Nick Perry, Jayrone Elliott. Perry is a solid role player — not exactly what you’re looking for in the first round but hardly a lost cause. He is pure power, which makes him an asset against the run and as a bull rusher but a liability when offenses spread the field. In his third season, he played in a career-high 15 games and had three sacks and one forced fumble — down from his four sacks and three forced fumbles in 2013. He did beat Pro bowl left tackle Tyron Smith for 1.5 sacks in the playoff win vs. Dallas. Elliott led the NFL with five sacks in the preseason. He barely played on defense once the regular season rolled around but he finished second on the team with 15 special-teams tackles. In the postseason, he had a team-high six in two games.
Contenders: Adrian Hubbard, Andy Mulumba, Jermauria Rasco, James Vaughters. Hubbard spent his rookie season on the practice squad. He went undrafted in 2014 after tallying three sacks and 5.5 tackles for losses as a junior at Alabama. Mulumba made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan in 2013 and wound up starting three games as a rookie. His 2014 ended in Week 2 with a knee injury. Rasco and Vaughters went undrafted this year out of LSU and Stanford, respectively. Rasco had four sacks and 7.5 tackles for losses as a senior, with nine-tackle games against national powerhouses Mississippi and Alabama. Vaughters had 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for losses as a senior.
Can Peppers turn back the clock one more time?: After a season of seven sacks and 47 tackles, the Bears deemed Peppers too old and too expensive and sent him packing. Peppers landed in Green Bay and recorded seven sacks and 45 tackles. The Packers were thrilled and brought the playoff captain back, even with his base salary soaring from $1 million to $8.5 million. Peppers had a career-high nine turnover plays with the four forced fumbles, three recoveries and two interceptions. Only J.J. Watt had more with 10. Peppers added two more forced fumbles in the playoffs to run his total to 11.
“I didn’t know (what was going to happen) last year coming in, but he had a big impact,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He was by far the best guy we’ve had come in and play on the other side since we’ve been here. We moved him around, he’s smart, certainly didn’t play like a 34-year-old guy. He still has great flexibility and he’s a rare athlete for a guy that size. You hear me say all the time that you’re looking for guys that are difference-makers. You go back and you can think about a lot of plays now that influence the game. You think about the Cowboy playoff game out here, if he doesn’t reach out and pull that fumble out on DeMarco Murray (it’s likely a touchdown and) the two interceptions for touchdowns. We got to where we’d match him up on certain protectors and he’d be a real one-on-one problem. You’re always looking for guys who’ll win one-on-one matchups. Julius on a lot of linemen is a tough one-on-one matchup.”
Neal or Perry?: With Matthews playing inside on a part-time basis, the pressure will be on Neal and Perry to be difference-makers outside. They weren’t last year. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-rushing productivity, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap, Perry ranked 40th and Neal 41st among the 47 3-4 outside linebackers who played 25 percent of the snaps. By the coaches’ count, Neal had eight quarterback hits and Perry had just one. Where Perry was a major asset was against the run. Opponents averaged 1.29 yards less per carry with Perry in the game than when on the sideline. Meanwhile, opponents averaged 0.41 yards more per carry with Neal in the game. Both players are entering their final year under contract. Chances are, their playing time will be based on down-and-distance situations.
“Nick Perry is a tough, physical football player,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Just ask his teammates. What he played through this past year, it was significant. I think it says a lot about him and he’s had some tough moments in the first two years of his career, but the guys that practice against him, the guys that he plays with and the guys in the locker room every day, they have a lot of respect for him. And clearly I do.”
Good enough without Matthews?: Without Peppers, you wonder if McCarthy and Capers could afford to put Matthews on the inside. The move of Matthews inside was a rousing success because the linebacker corps was so healthy. Between Matthews, Peppers, Neal and Perry, they played in 63 of a possible 64 games. The Packers need those players to stay healthy again after not adding an outside linebacker in this year’s draft.
“I like our guys that we have outside,” Capers said. “I think Julius played very well for us last year. I think the combination of Nick Perry and Mike Neal (played well) and, obviously, you'd like to be able to play Clay both inside and outside. But he’ll still get his snaps out there. He can slide back outside from one week to the next and play. A lot of that will be based on where we are injury-wise and the health of our team and how fast some people come along at different positions and that type of thing. Our goal is to put the best 11 players out there to give us the best chance of winning and especially being ready to go at the start of the season.”
Elliott ready for prime time?: As Carl Bradford showed last year, you never know what you’re going to get when adding a collegiate pass rusher. That’s especially true for a guy like Elliott, who had nine sacks as a senior at Toledo. It was the preseason, but Elliott showed promise with a league-high five sacks — including three against St. Louis. Can he take the next step and be a regular-season contributor? If so, it would help alleviate the concerns raised above.
“Clay was wild,” said Elliott, who has Pro Bowl aspirations. “He’d throw his body around, fly around out there, just an Energizer bunny. He was out everywhere on the field — dropping back, covering guys, rushing off the edge, rushing from the A gap, everywhere. Hopefully, I can just try to be as physical as I am, and as athletic as I am.”
Who’s next?: Elliott was the latest undrafted free agent to make an impact at outside linebacker, following in the footsteps of Andy Mulumba (2013), Dezman Moses (2012), Vic So’oto (2011) and Frank Zombo (2010). Hubbard (undrafted, 2014) and Mulumba (undrafted, 2013) will battle this year’s rookie free agents, Rasco and Vaughters, for a spot or two.
“That’s what my agent was telling me,” Rasco said. “If you go to some other place, they might just try to use you up. Here in Green Bay, they have a lot of undrafted guys that have made the team and been in the league. I fully understand the opportunity that’s here is a good one. If you’re good enough, you’re going to play – no matter if you’re first round or undrafted or a tryout. At the end of the day, you’re going to get an opportunity to play ball.”
McCarthy cited Hubbard as having a “heck of a spring.” At 6-foot-6, he is an imposing talent.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.