A couple of days after the bitter ending to the 2015 season, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy made perfectly clear his goal for Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews.
“He’s an outside linebacker, and we need to get back to him playing there,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy left some wiggle room in that statement, saying Matthews could play on the inside “when needed,” and his move back to the outside was dependent on “how our personnel shakes out” through the offseason.
The offseason personnel moves shook out with the release of Nate Palmer, who started 10 games and finished third on the team in tackles, and the addition of Stanford’s Blake Martinez with a fourth-round draft pick.
“I think this is a fluid situation,” McCarthy said after the draft.
Will Martinez, Sam Barrington and Jake Ryan progress to such an extent that Matthews can return to being a full-time outside linebacker?
That will be the biggest story line to follow when training camp begins in about eight weeks. The questions are obvious:
— Can Barrington stay healthy? Barrington replaced A.J. Hawk down the stretch in 2014 and immediately made an impact, starting with his hard-hitting debut vs. New England. When he was on the field, opponents averaged 0.83 fewer yards per carry than when he was on the sideline during the regular season. In the final seven games (including playoffs), Green Bay allowed 21 or fewer points in regulation six times. His physicality, intensity and leadership helped the Packers get painstakingly close to the Super Bowl. However, he spent the second half of his rookie season and almost all of last season on injured reserve.
— Can Ryan play all three downs? As a rookie fourth-round pick last season, Ryan started the final five regular-season games and both playoff tilts. The results weren’t as startling as when Barrington took over in 2014, with opponents averaging 0.14 yards more per carry with Ryan in the lineup in the regular season. He’s big enough, smart enough and appears tough enough. Can he play pass defense, though? The lasting impression was the Week 16 game at Arizona in which Ryan got torched twice by rookie running back David Johnson. However, opponents averaged 0.11 fewer yards per passing play with Ryan in the game, so it’s not as if he was a disaster. Athletically, he’s just fine, with his 4.65 in the 40, 34.5-inch vertical and 4.20 in the 20-yard shuttle beating Martinez in two categories (4.71 in the 40, 28.5-inch vertical) and tying in the third (4.20 in the shuttle).
— What role will Martinez earn as a rookie? Can he beat out Barrington or Ryan? Will he take over the third-down role that Joe Thomas handled upon bring brought back to Green Bay early last season? Martinez has the athletic ability, intelligence and the priceless experience of playing in the spread-the-field Pac-12 Conference working in his favor. Whether that will translate into matching up with the aforementioned Johnson remains to be seen.
How Barrington, Ryan and Martinez fare in August will go a long way toward determining where Matthews lines up in September and beyond.
“There's a lot of factors,” Capers said. “As we go through, we just have to measure all those things. You're always searching for ways to get your best 11 football players on the field. To me, that's got to be a governing factor in what you're going. How can we get the best guys on the field? But our plans are to work Clay back outside and let's see where we are and go from there. At the start of the season last year, we lost Sam in that first game. I remember going into the Seattle game and Clay played every down inside. Well, that wasn't really what we wanted, but we didn't have a lot of alternatives at that point in time. I think he rushed twice in the Seattle game, but we felt we had to do that to win the game. But we brought Joe Thomas back in the next week and Joe played the rest of the season at the 'backer position in dime and Clay was back outside again. Those are the types of things you have to make adjustments on based off of who you have available.”
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.