Grading the Packers’ Linebackers on a Salary Cap Curve

Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers — the two highest-paid linebackers in the NFL — led the way in 2015, but there's nothing but uncertainty heading into the offseason.

Player grades are a tried-and-true staple at the end of every season. We put our usual spin on them by grading the players on a salary-cap curve. Stats are from STATS , the NFL and the Packers’ coaches. Salary comparisons are from OverTheCap.com.

Linebackers

ILB/OLB Clay Matthews: Matthews’ cap charge of $12.7 million topped the charts for all NFL linebackers, regardless of position. He was an all-around playmaker for the Packers as he ranked second with 85 tackles and 6.5 sacks, No. 1 with 15 quarterback hits (according to the coaches) and 21 hurries (according to STATS), and No. 3 with six stuffs (which STATS defines as a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage on a running play). He was a bit invisible at times — a combined one tackle vs. Oakland and Arizona in December — and his 12.29 snaps per tackle was far behind the rest of the inside linebackers. He missed far too many tackles for a player with his talent. Still, he became the ultimate chess piece for defensive coordinator Dom Capers. He started all 16 games for the second consecutive season — and only the second time of his career — and plays with remarkable effort that is too-often overlooked. He didn’t make the play, but look at what he did on Larry Fitzgerald’s 75-yard catch-and-run. He pressured Carson Palmer, reversed course, and almost tackled Fitzgerald past midfield, even though Fitzgerald had a 15-yard head-start. Considering he’s been an upfield player throughout his career, he is excellent in coverage. Coach Mike McCarthy wants him back at outside linebacker, which means the Packers might have to use an early pick on an inside backer. Grade: B.

OLB Julius Peppers: Peppers’ cap charge of $12.0 million ranked second among all linebackers. For most of the season, Peppers was an all-or-nothing player. He either sacked the quarterback or was nowhere to be found. Down the stretch, though, Peppers stepped up the tempo. After recording just a half-sack during a five-game stretch at midseason, Peppers had 4.5 sacks during the final five regular-season games and added another in the playoffs. He finished with 10.5 sacks and 16 hurries. He had just one tackle for every 17.02 snaps and his turnover production fell from nine in 2014 to two (both forced fumbles). His cap number dips to $10.5 million for 2016. Considering he finished with a bang rather than a whimper, it’d be a surprise if the 36-year-old isn’t asked back. Grade: C-plus.

OLB Mike Neal: Neal enters free agency on a strong note. Playing all 16 games for the third consecutive year, Neal tallied four sacks, 10 tackles for losses and one forced fumble. His eight stuffs tied Mike Daniels for the team lead and he added nine quarterback hits and nine quarterback hurries. In three seasons as an outside linebacker, Neal recorded 13.5 sacks. However, his 18.29 snaps between tackles was the worst among the Packers’ linebackers and opponents averaged 0.07 more yards per running play with Neal in the game. His cap number of $4.25 million ranked 21st among 3-4 outside linebackers. Grade: C-plus.

OLB Nick Perry: Perry, the team’s top pick in 2012, showed that first-round ability throughout his four seasons in Green Bay but never on a consistent basis. It will be interesting to see how much interest he receives in free agency. In 14 games this year, Perry had 34 tackles, including 3.5 sacks and seven for losses. He added eight hurries. In the playoff game at Washington, he demolished Pro Bowler Trent Williams for two sacks. He is a tough customer against the run, with his 10.41 snaps per tackle easily the best among the team’s regulars at outside linebacker. Moreover, teams averaged 0.96 yards less per run with Perry in the game — easily the biggest difference on the team. That's actually a drop-off compared to 2014, when he was a 1.29-yard difference. He might be out of place in a spread-the-field type of game but he’s well-suited for a more-traditional attack. His cap charge of $2.39 million ranked 28th at the position. Grade: C-plus.

OLB Jayrone Elliott: Depth got in the way of Elliott getting more playing time. When he was on the field, he was productive. In 14 games, he recorded 17 tackles, including three sacks and three tackles for losses. He was credited with three hurries. His tackle rate was one for every 10.41 snaps. With one interception, two passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, he was the only defender on the team with a tally in each of those four categories. With the depth on defense, Elliott needed to make his mark on special teams but went from 15 tackles to 11. His cap charge was $511,666. Grade: C-minus.

OLB Andy Mulumba: Mulumba, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL, made the team but was inactive for nine of 16 games. He recorded three tackles on defense and two on special teams. Mulumba, whose cap number was $586,668, will be a restricted free agent. He’s worth another look. Grade: F.

ILB Jake Ryan: The rookie fourth-round pick started the final five games and registered 44 tackles, including three stuffs (all tackles for losses). He added three hurries and one fumble recovery. His tackle rate of one for every 6.05 snaps was No. 1 on the team. Opponents averaged 0.14 more yards per carry with Ryan on the field. He has a nose for the ball and isn’t the type of tackler to make the hit at 2 yards but to allow the ball-carrier to fall ahead for 2 more yards. In coverage, the memory will be of Ryan getting torched twice by Arizona’s David Johnson in Week 16 but, otherwise, he played pretty well against the passing game. In all facets, but especially coverage, he should get better with experience, but the Packers will have to determine whether he’s good enough to be an every-down player or if they need someone to play in passing situations. His cap number was $549,169. Grade: C-plus.

ILB Nate Palmer: After Sam Barrington went down in the opener, Palmer opened the next 10 games. Even while watching from the bench for the final five games, Palmer finished third on the team with 80 tackles, with two stuffs (both tackles for losses). He added one sack, two hurries and tied Matthews for tops among the inside backers with three passes defensed. His 6.88 snaps per tackle certainly wasn’t bad, and opponents averaged 0.34 fewer yards per carry with Palmer on the field. Nonetheless, after the home loss to Chicago — a game in which Palmer tallied 11 tackles — the Packers made the move to Ryan. Palmer’s cap number was $609,724. Grade: D-plus.

ILB Joe Thomas: Maybe only Ted Thompson could have authored this story. The Packers couldn’t live with Thomas — cutting the 2014 undrafted free agent at the end of training camp. Then they couldn’t live without him — plucking him off Dallas’ practice squad after Week 2 and immediately inserting him into the lineup as the dime linebacker for the rest of the season. Thomas’ athleticism and intelligence allowed the Packers to use Matthews as a third-and-long pass rusher. He played pretty well in coverage but didn’t always tackle well — especially against Kansas City, his first game back with the team. He certainly didn’t kill the defense. He had one sack, three tackles for losses, two passes defensed and two hurries. He added four quarterback hits — Ryan and Palmer had zero. His cap number was almost $384,000. Whether it’s an every-down linebacker early in the draft or an athletic role player late, the Packers would like to do better. Grade: C-minus.

ILB Sam Barrington: This was supposed to be Barrington’s defense. Tough, smart and a natural leader, Barrington played well down the stretch in 2014 and would have been the every-down inside linebacker this season. Instead, an ankle injury sustained in the opener at Chicago cost him the entire season. The Packers will enter the offseason workouts with Barrington and Ryan as their starting pair. Whether any of them can play on third-and-long is anyone’s guess. Grade: Incomplete.

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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