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Packers in a Rush at Outside Linebacker

Clay Matthews is coming off a poor season and three other top performers are headed to free agency.

General manager Ted Thompson must fix the Green Bay Packers’ defense.

At outside linebacker, does that mean minor renovations or a wrecking ball?

Thompson must decide how he’s going to handle his outside linebackers — the position group that’s supposed to power the pass rush in a 3-4 scheme.

The only players under contract for 2017 are Clay Matthews and Kyler Fackrell, both of whom are coming off disappointing seasons. Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Datone Jones are set to become unrestricted free agents and Jayrone Elliott will be a restricted free agent.

Perry was far and away the best player of that group, even while missing two games with a broken hand and finishing the season with a club-cast. Perry earned every nickel of a one-year, $5.05 million contract. He led the team with 11 sacks, led the outside linebackers with 17 quarterback hurries (according to STATS) and was second on the team with 15 quarterback hits (according to the coaches). Pro Football Focus has a metric called “pass-rushing productivity,” which measures sacks, hits and hurries divided by pass-rushing snaps. Among 3-4 outside linebackers with more than 140 pass-rushing snaps, Perry ranked 24th out of 57 while tallying a team-high 48 total pressures.

Peppers finished second on the team with 7.5 sacks but, as you might expect from a player who turned 37 before the NFC Championship Game, was far less effective on a snap-to-snap basis. Peppers had 12 quarterback hurries (according to STATS) and finished fifth on the team with 12 quarterback hits (according to the coaches). In PFF’s PRP, Peppers ranked 38th out of 57 and generated 37 total pressures.

Jones is a strange case that shows sacks can be an overrated stat. Jones had just one sack but led the team with 16 quarterback hits (according to the coaches) and was fourth on the team with 14 hurries (according to STATS). In PFF’s PRP, however, Jones tied for 35th and generated 35 total pressures.

Of note, Green Bay’s three free-agent outside linebackers combined for 43 hurries, according to STATS. Eagles edge rusher Brandon Graham led the NFL with 40 by himself.

For a defense starved for playmakers, the Packers would be foolish to not bring back Perry, who is arguably their top front-seven playmaker. However, at what price? Perry never has played a full 16-game season, with 60 of a possible 80 regular-season games in his first five seasons and 54 of a possible 64 regular-season games the past four seasons.

Are Peppers and Jones good enough to bring back? That’s a key question for Thompson. Both were below-average by ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-rushing metric, but Thompson can’t leave the cupboard bare because there are no young guns waiting in the wings.

Matthews had a terrible season by his standards. In 2010 and 2012, Matthews had six sacks in the first two games of those seasons. In 12 games this season, he had five sacks. He added 15 hurries (STATS) and 13 hits (coaches). He had more hits (15) and hurries (21) last year while playing inside linebacker. In PFF’s PRP, Matthews tied for 35th and generated 28 total pressures. That’s simply not good enough for a player with a $13.75 million cap charge. For this defense to help the Packers get to the Super Bowl next year, Matthews’ rebound is a necessity. Is that possible, with his 31st birthday two months away?

Fackrell, a third-round pick, had two sacks in 13 games and barely played down the stretch. The coaches gave him just one quarterback hit.

The Packers finished seventh in sack rate, with a sack for every 7.54 percent of opponent dropbacks. However, according to STATS, they tied for 12th in quarterback hurries New England was ninth and Atlanta was fourth. Throughout the rest of Dom Capers’ tenure as coordinator, they finished sixth in 2015, tied for 23rd in 2014, 10th in 2013, tied for 20th in 2012, fourth in 2011, tied for 19th in 2010 and second in 2009.

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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