INDIANAPOLIS – The Green Bay Packers figure to go into next season with Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers as their outside linebackers.
While general manager Ted Thompson shed no light on his plans with the veteran Peppers – “We’d like to have everybody back,” is all Thompson would say – coach Mike McCarthy was more forthcoming.
“I have no reason to think he won’t” return, McCarthy said of Peppers during a lengthy session with beat writers at the JW Marriott Hotel on Thursday.
Peppers turned 36 in January. He has a cap number of $10.5 million, which includes a $7 million base salary for the upcoming season. While his big-play production dropped from a combined nine interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries in 2014 to two in 2015, he recorded a team-high 10.5 sacks and played his best ball down the stretch.
Matthews will be back at outside linebacker, McCarthy said, repeating what he said after the season. It won’t be a return to the role he had from 2009 through the first half of 2014, however. Rather, it will be merely a revised job description from what he did during a Pro Bowl 2015 season.
“He’s going to start at outside linebacker,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know about the percentage, whether some people call it a spinner, some people call it a rover, however you want to illustrate it, where he’ll come inside and do different things as a pass rusher. There’s definitely schemes and offenses that you might want him in there for a matchup purpose. That’s still all on the table.”
With Matthews generally playing at inside linebacker on first and second down and moving into a pass-rushing role on third down, Packers fielded their best defense since the Super Bowl season of 2010. They finished 12th in points allowed but had been in the top five at times, with their final ranking hit hard by the December loss to Arizona, when the offense gave away two touchdowns and set up the Cardinals on a short field for a third touchdown. Whether it was stopping the run, blitzing or playing coverage, Matthews was a tremendous asset at inside linebacker – the Packers’ weakest position after Sam Barrington’s season ended with a Week 1 ankle injury.
“The experience of having Clay in there and what’s come out of it, we don’t want to throw that all away,” McCarthy said. “There’s some things when he is in there, it’s a challenge for the offense. And with that, it’s created some tendencies, too. Some teams try to run right at him. There’s a lot to gain from his experience in there, and I think as we move forward it’s not like, ‘Hey, we’re throwing inside linebacker away because he’s an outside linebacker.’ I don’t think that would be very smart to do that.”
Of course, if Matthews is lining up at outside linebacker on first down, the question is who will take his spot at inside linebacker? Jake Ryan, a rookie fourth-round pick, flashed at times when put into the lineup down the stretch. Barrington flashed at times when put into the lineup down the stretch in 2014. Can either hold up in coverage? Will either be more than an average starter? Those are unanswered questions.
“We all understand where we are,” McCarthy said. “This is the player acquisition phase, but I can only focus on the players I know are going to be there next year. That’s the way I’ve always done it. As we evaluate the video and as we start building these packages, definitely those are the guys we’re thinking about.”
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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.