Clay Matthews is going back to outside linebacker and Julius Peppers will return to the position from which he led the team in sacks.
What does that mean for free-agent outside linebackers Nick Perry and Mike Neal, with the signing period beginning Wednesday?
That is perhaps the most intriguing question for the Green Bay Packers and their defense-centric list of free agents.
With Letroy Guion and Mason Crosby re-signed, a dozen unrestricted free agents remain: Perry, Neal, nose tackle B.J. Raji, cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Sean Richardson on defense, offensive tackle Don Barclay, receiver James Jones, fullback John Kuhn, tight end Andrew Quarless, running back James Starks and quarterback Scott Tolzien on offense, and injured long snapper Brett Goode on special teams.
With Neal starting 15 games and Perry serving as the primary backup to Neal and Peppers, Neal had 42 tackles (28 solos) with 10 tackles for losses, four sacks and one forced fumble in 16 games. Perry had 35 tackles (23 solos), with seven tackles for losses, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 14 games (one start).
Neal was by far the better pass rusher, with the Packers’ giving him a resounding 10-1 edge in quarterback hits during the regular season. His career was rejuvenated by the move to outside linebacker in 2013. In three season at that position, Neal recorded 13.5 sacks and played in all 48 regular-season games. Compare that to the start of his career: Spending his first three seasons as a defensive end, Neal managed only 5.5 sacks and 20 regular-season games.
“Most definitely,” Neal said at the end of the season when asked if he’s happy with what he put on video. “What can you ask? You’ve been with your hand in the dirt your whole career and then somebody asks you to stand up to be something completely different in the National Football League. That’s not an easy transition. You have to be happy with what you’ve done. You can always get better and I know that I can get better. There’s still a lot of football left ahead of me. I’m proud of what I did. I can’t look back and say that I would do anything differently.”
Perry, on the other hand was by far the better run defender. When he was on the field, opponents averaged 0.96 yards less per rush than when he was on the sideline. When Neal was on the field, opponents averaged 0.07 yards more per carry. That’s a staggering 1.03-yard difference per running play. While he might be a fish out of water against spread-the-field attacks and a liability in space, there’s something to be said for being a tough guy vs. the run. He's also shown he can rush the passer. He destroyed Redskins Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams in the playoffs, with Perry collecting 2.5 sacks vs. Washington and another vs. Arizona in the playoffs.
After settling for back-to-back one-year contracts because of subpar performance (2013) and injury (2014), Raji had 34 tackles (12 solos), two tackles for losses and two passes defensed in 15 games in 2015. Working against him in his quest for something longer than a one- or two-year deal, his half-sack vs. Chicago in Week 1 was his first sack since the 2011 season. He didn’t get so much as a quarterback hit the rest of the season, according to the coaches’ film review. Working in his favor, opponents averaged 0.49 yards less per carry with Raji on the field.
“I knew I had it in me, but this is a show-me business, this is a show-me league,” Raji said. “I didn't really have a lot to prove to anybody, but I felt like the talent was within me all along, and it was about displaying it, and I believe I did.”
Also working in Raji’s favor is the season-opening four-game suspension levied against fellow defensive lineman Mike Pennel. Without Pennel and Raji, the Packers would be incredibly short-handed headed into free agency and the draft.
“B.J. is a free agent, a big guy, but he’s one of our guys. I’m hopeful we get B.J. signed,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the Combine.
The other key player on defense is Hayward, who had six interceptions and 25 passes defensed as a rookie in 2012 but three interceptions and 14 passes defensed the past three seasons combined. The Packers covered themselves by drafting Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in the first two rounds of last year’s draft.
“I played well all year,” Hayward said. “I think people can throw on the film and see that. I think people even missed some of the things that I do off the field and on the field. I’m a veteran. I kind of led those young guys, me and Sam (Shields). I’m pretty sure a lot of people see those things when they throw on the film, when they ask around the organization. Hopefully I can be back, but we’ll see how that goes.”
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.