Everyone does player grades.
Ours are different.
We do ours on a salary-cap curve. After all, the salary cap largely determines long-term success in the NFL. Players with big-money contracts must be big-time performers. Those highly paid players must be supplemented by several small-budget but high-production players.
With that, we continue this series with the outside linebackers. Salary comparisons are from OverTheCap.com. Stats are from STATS, Pro Football Focus and the Packers’ coaching staff.
2016 cap: $13.75 million (first among all 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends)
Matthews hardly earned his massive payday. That's going to have to change if this defense has any hopes of taking the huge leap to championship-caliber.
Dogged all offseason by questions centered on an Al-Jazeera America report of performance-enhancing drug use — allegations dismissed following an NFL investigation — an early-season hamstring injury and then a shoulder injury, Matthews had his least-productive year in his eight seasons.
According to the coaches’ stats, Matthews finished with 24 tackles and five sacks in 12 games. His previous worst season came in 2013, when he missed five games with a broken right thumb but still recorded 50 tackles — twice as many as he had this season — and six sacks.
Matthews played 19.83 snaps for every tackle, the worst rate on the unit. He had 2.5 stuffs — defined as a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run. He had 5.5 in each of the past two seasons and eight as a rookie in 2009. ProFootballFocus.com’s top run-stopping metric is called run stops, which measures impact tackles (such as a first-and-10 tackle that holds the play to 3 yards or less). Matthews’ run-stop percentage of 4.1 ranked 51st out of the 57 3-4 outside linebackers who played at least 104 snaps against the run.
Last year, Matthews had 6.5 sacks and an additional 20.5 hurries (according to STATS) and 15 quarterback hits (according to the coaches). He tallied only 14.5 hurries and 13 quarterback hits this season. PFF’s pass-rushing productivity measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap. Among the 57 3-4 outside linebackers who had more than 140 pass-rushing snaps, Matthews ranked 35th in PRP. At least he had three quarterback hits in the NFC Championship Game. Matthews had only one turnover play (a forced fumble) after averaging 3.1 during his first seven seasons.
In 11 games, he averaged 43.3 snaps (476 total). The shoulder injury — and the sack-strips against Minnesota in December and the Giants in the playoffs — saves him from an even worse grade.
2016 cap: $10.5 million (sixth at position)
Peppers wasn’t a down-to-down menace but 7.5 sacks are nothing to scoff at. However, the sacks and occasional big plays (two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery) were the highlights of his season.
In 16 games, he averaged 36.5 snaps (584 total). Peppers recorded 30 tackles, giving him a tackle rate of 19.47 snaps per tackle. He had just one stuff. Peppers ranked 40th out of 57 in PFF’s run-stop metric and 38th out of 57 in its pass-rushing metric. After tallying 10.5 sacks and an additional 14.5 hurries last year, he plunged to 12 hurries (STATS) and 12 hits (coaches).
Nonetheless, Peppers earned every single penny of the three-year, $26 million contract he signed in 2014, with 25 sacks, 10 forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. Father Time eventually wins every individual battle. Peppers, who turned 37 before the NFC Championship Game, did about as well as anyone. At the right price, the Packers might want to see Peppers battle one more time in a specialized pass-rushing role.
2016 cap: $4.875 million (42nd at position)
Playing on a one-year, prove-it style contract, Perry heads to free agency coming off his best season in the NFL.
Perry had 12.5 sacks and 19 additional hurries (according to STATS) in his first four seasons. This season, Perry had a team-high 11 sacks along with 16.5 additional hurries and 15 quarterback hits (coaches’ count). Perry missed two games with a broken hand but recorded three one-handed sacks in the final two regular-season games. Adding the sacks to the coaches’ hit count, that’s a total of 28. Peppers had 19.5 and Matthews had 18. In PFF’s pass-rushing productivity, Perry was a team-best 24th out of the aforementioned 57 3-4 outside linebackers.
Moreover, Perry led the unit in tackles (60) and snaps per tackle (10.05). Perry had twice as many tackles as any of the team’s other outside linebackers. He’s as strong as an ox; Perry vs. a tight end is a mismatch. Long regarded as one of the best run-stopping linebackers in the league, Perry led the 57 outside linebackers in PFF’s run-stop percentage. Perry had 24 run stops; Matthews and Peppers combined for only 14. Perry led the outside linebacker corps with five stuffs. Somehow, he didn’t force or recover a fumble.
In 14 games, he averaged 43.1 snaps (unit-high 603 total).
2016 cap: $2.455 million (57th at position)
Oddly, Jones had just one sack but led the team with 16 additional quarterback hits (coaches) and was fourth on the team with 13.5 hurries (STATS). In PFF’s pass-rushing productivity, Jones tied for 35th out of the aforementioned 57 3-4 outside linebackers. But at least he put some pressure on the passer; he never had more than seven hurries in a season. Hurries are great but it’s about finishing. He didn’t do that — and hasn’t done that — nearly enough.
Jones recorded 30 tackles, beating only Matthews and Peppers with his rate of 18.27 snaps per tackle. Jones added only two stuffs — down from 4.5 last year — but was 12th in PFF’s run-stop percentage. He was just too big to be blocked consistently. He wasn’t involved in a turnover play. In 15 games, he averaged 36.5 snaps (548 total).
Jones is headed to free agency with a not-so-grand total of nine sacks, no forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception in four seasons. He was a better elephant outside linebacker than pure defensive lineman, but that’s not saying much. He might want to try his luck as a 4-3 defensive end.
2016 cap: $623.512 (117th at position)
Fackrell, the team’s third-round pick, played more than Jayrone Elliott but wasn’t as productive. In 13 games, Fackrell (160 snaps; 12.3 per game) had nine tackles, good for a rate of 17.78 snaps per tackle. While he was the more effective rusher (two sacks, six additional hurries, one additional quarterback hit) and did force a fumble, he had no stuffs against the run. Like Elliott, Fackrell was a solid contributor on special teams, tying for second on the team with nine tackles. It seemed as if the coaches force-fed Fackrell some snaps at linebacker — not that that’s a bad strategy for a draft-and-develop team. He should benefit from that in the long run. However, after playing 29 snaps vs. Tennessee in Week 10, his final seven regular-season games were a bust: inactive for three and a total of 17 snaps in the other four. Then, he played zero snaps against Dallas and Atlanta in the playoffs. Fackrell needs a big offseason of strength development if he’s going to become the contributor this defense needs in 2017.
2016 cap: $601,688 (123rd at position)
Elliott had 31 tackles, three sacks, one interception and one forced fumble in 2015. That would not serve as a launching point for this, his third season in the league. Elliott missed five games, including the first two (hamstring) and last two (broken hand). He registered only 13 tackles and one sack. However, he made the most of his 136 snaps (12.4 per game). His 10.46 snaps per tackle ranked second on the unit. He had 3.5 stuffs — as many as Matthews and Peppers combined and more than than everyone but Perry at the position despite the paltry number of snaps. He should have played ahead of Fackrell, though you can understand the coaches’ thinking. The team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee had a team-high 13 tackles on special teams. Elliott will be a restricted free agent.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.