With seven days until the start of training camp, we continue our position previews with the inside linebackers.
Starters: Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. Backups: Jayrone Elliott, Kyler Fackrell, Reggie Gilbert, Datone Jones, Lerentee McCray and Nick Perry.
Coming: Fackrell (third round), McCray (free agent), Gilbert (undrafted). Going: Mike Neal.
Depth: There’s no doubt Peppers and Matthews will start. In fact, it would be an upset if the Packers don’t go into the season with Matthews, Peppers, Perry, Jones, Elliott and Fackrell forming an impressive six-man platoon, with McCray vying to join them. What needs to be worked out is the pecking order, which could be subject to change depending on the weekly matchups.
The Packers are extremely deep at the elephant position, with Peppers joined by Perry and Jones as guys capable of playing outside linebacker on rushing downs and defensive tackle on passing downs. That’s good news, as it will allow defensive coordinator Dom Capers to use the 36-year-old Peppers judiciously to save him for a presumed playoff run.
Injuries have dogged Perry throughout his career, which is why the team’s first-round pick in 2012 re-signed with only a one-year contract. But when he’s played, he’s delivered. His 10.41 snaps per tackle last season was easily the best among the team’s regulars at outside linebacker. Moreover, opponents averaged 0.96 yards less per run with Perry in the game — easily the biggest difference on the team. That was actually a drop-off vs. 2014, when he was a 1.29-yard difference. Impressively, he’s delivered in big games. Last postseason, he beat up on Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams for 2.5 sacks against Washington. A week later at Arizona, he recorded a sack-strip. In fact, Perry leads the NFL with six postseason sacks over the past four seasons.
“Nick Perry looks great,” coach Mike McCarthy said during OTAs. “If you think about it, this is his first time to go through an offseason without dealing with an injury.”
If he can stay healthy, he’s going to play. A lot. And if he plays a lot, he’s going to produce and make a lot of money next offseason — perhaps in Green Bay, which presumably will be trying to replace Peppers. While his athletic limitations are obvious, there’s always a role for a run-stopping, power-rushing linebacker.
“I’m still young,” Perry said. “I’m still young and I still have a lot of football left. Opportunities come and they go. I just want to be available when the opportunity does come. None of that matters unless I go out there and play ball.”
If Matthews, Peppers and Perry form the primary trio, where does that leave Jones? Is he anything more than insurance should Perry get injured again? The Packers drafted Jones with their first-round pick in 2013 with the hope that he’d become an every-down defensive lineman. That didn’t happen, which is why Jones is trying to find his niche at outside linebacker rather than helping the team’s paper-thin defensive line.
During the first half of last season, Jones averaged merely 19 snaps per game. Then came the on-the-fly position change. In the final eight regular-season games, Jones averaged 30 snaps per game. Of that, 121 came at outside linebacker — 15.1 per game — according to Pro Football Focus. According to the team’s stats, 15 of his 25 tackles and two of his three sacks came during the second half of the season.
“We made the switch last year during the season in trying to get him more repetitions outside (and) we liked the results,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We still think Datone can go inside and rush inside (on passing downs), but we're working him primarily outside. He gives you a big, physical presence out there, which we think is good on the run and he did some good things rushing the passer.”
Elliott and Fackrell will battle for scraps, potentially vying for a situational pass-rushing role to take some of the burden off of Matthews.
Now’s the time for Elliott, a third-year player who has produced when given opportunities. In 14 games last season, he recorded three sacks. 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 categories.
At a wiry 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Fackrell might be a pick for the future. He needs a year to build strength after putting up just 15 reps on the bench press at the Scouting Combine. After missing almost all of the 2014 season with a torn ACL, Fackrell had 80 tackles, five sacks, 15 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and a national-best five fumble recoveries as a senior playing outside linebacker in Utah State’s 3-4 scheme. He showed up in the backfield a lot during the offseason practices.
IF THIS HAPPENS ...
Can Peppers crank out one more good season? Can Matthews produce as expected with his move back outside? Can the depth deliver? If those things happen, the Packers’ pass rush could be dominant. And as the Broncos proved last season, anything is possible if you can beat up on the quarterback.
“I think you were able to see how DeMarcus (Ware) and Von (Miller) were able to neutralize not only a very good Carolina offense but really their quarterback, Cam (Newton), who was the MVP,” Matthews said. “That was kind of the difference in the game. I think that’s what a lot of teams are striving for — especially in this league that’s become more pass happy — is finding bookends. Look at Kansas City, Tamba (Hali) and Justin (Houston) were able to get after the quarterback. Going back to James Harrison and (LaMarr) Woodley (with the Steelers), Dwight Freeney and (Robert) Mathis (with the Colts), those are guys who you remember. Hopefully, that’s the case. The great thing about us two is we can move around the line, as well. We can play inside-outside and hopefully we can harass quarterbacks.”
Of the 17 teams running a 3-4 last season, Green Bay finished fifth with 43 sacks. That’s a credit to Capers, who had one premier rusher with Peppers (10.5 sacks) and another moonlighting at inside linebacker with Matthews (6.5 sacks). The bookend to Peppers, Neal, had just four sacks — not good enough since 3-4 schemes require playmaking outside linebackers. Now, Matthews is moving back to outside linebacker, where he’s averaged more than 10 sacks per season.
“I’ve always tried to be a team player,” Matthews said. “I think I exemplified that in making the switch. I don’t think many players would do that with the success I’d like to think I had on the outside, but I think it really helped this team out. You look statistically where we went as a defense both in rush statistics as well as pass, but I think at the end of the day they see my most natural and most impactful position as a pass rusher.”
If either Fackrell or Elliott can contribute, the pass rush could be fierce, with Capers having ample options. Just from the outside linebackers, Peppers, Matthews, Perry (3.5) Jones (3.0), Elliott (3.0) had 26.5 sacks. If all of that potential can be turned into production, it would allow Capers to eliminate some of the burden on Matthews and Peppers to bring the heat.
“I think it enables us to keep guys fresh outside, which is an important position in terms of being able to rush,” Capers said. “Maybe the hardest thing in football is for a guy that's giving up some size — let's say a guy like Clay, who's 250 pounds, and he's rushing against a 320-pound tackle all day — and you get into these two-minute situations and the no-huddle and the fast pace and you're pushing and tugging and pulling on a guy that you're giving up maybe 70 pounds. So you're got to get a good rotation going. We'll have some guys that are very physical there that we can rotate through, with a Julius Peppers, a Datone, a Nick Perry, and then you probably a little bit more of the outside linebacker types like a Clay, like a Jayronne Elliott, like a Fackrell. Those guys are more similar. So, we've got some different ways that we can go in terms of rotation. Plus, when you get into third down and these definite passing situations, you might have all of those guys out there because you want to have as athletic a group (as you can) that can run and chase the quarterback down and create problems in terms of matchups.”
Peppers. Peppers’ 10.5 sacks last season were astounding. In NFL history, that’s tied for the 11th-most sacks in a season by a player age 35 or older. He enters this season tied for ninth all-time with 136 sacks. That’s the most among active players. If he even records six sacks this season, he’ll zoom past Hall of Famers Richard Dent and John Randle (137.5 apiece), Jason Taylor (139.5) and Hall of Famer Michael Strahan (141.5) to move into No. 5. With a monster season, Peppers could pass Chris Doleman, who ranks fourth all-time with 150.5 sacks.
“Sometimes you see him during the year and you forget — I’m not even going to say how old he is, but how long he’s been in the league and his model of consistency,” Matthews said. “He hasn’t had a 20-sack year, he’s always 10, 10, 10, ripping them off year after year, and now he’s a handful of sacks away from being in the top five and a sure-fire Hall of Famer. It’s fun to watch. I’m very fortunate to have him on my team and not only learn from what he’s able to do on the field but how he carries himself and how he goes about his business and how he prepares. Even though I’m going into Year 8, you can always take something away from guys who have similar success – actually, a lot more success. It’s a good thing we have him on our team and I’d like to think he’ll continue that success until he wants to call it a career.”
Although Peppers played 110 fewer snaps, he went from seven sacks in 2014 to 10.5 in 2015. However, there was a big drop-off in other key stats, with Peppers going from four forced fumbles, three recoveries and two interceptions in 2014, when he finished second in the NFL in turnover plays, to just two forced fumbles in 2015.
The dip in big plays notwithstanding, Peppers continues to run neck and neck in a race with Father Time, who remains undefeated in all sporting endeavors.
“I really don’t feel that way, to be honest with you,” Peppers said about his age. “I feel like I’m one of these young guys — most days. Some days I get up and I feel like an old man. But for the most part I feel pretty good.”
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.