For the Green Bay Packers, the free-agent outlook at outside linebacker is similar to the story at running back, tight end and guard.
They can pay to keep a standout player — in this case, it’s Nick Perry — or they can turn their attention to a deep NFL Draft class for a younger and cheaper replacement.
Green Bay, in fact, has three outside linebackers headed to free agency, with aging Julius Peppers and former first-round pick Datone Jones joining Perry. They combined for 19.5 of the team’s 40 sacks and 43 of the team’s 94 quarterback hits.
Perry, of course, did the most damage in a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Brought back on a one-year deal, Perry turned in the best season of his five-year career. Not only did he have a team-high 11 sacks and a second-ranked 15 quarterback hits, but he was his usual dominant self against the run. Of the 57 3-4 outside linebackers who played at least 104 snaps against the run, he led the NFL in ProFootballFocus.com’s run-stop percentage, which measures impact tackles rather than the sheer number of tackles.
With that excellence against the run and pass, Perry no doubt has kept his agents busy on the first day of the free-agent negotiating period. About the only ding on Perry’s resume is health. He’s never played a full 16-game season. In fact, he’s missed the equivalent of a full 16-game season during his five seasons.
“Nick had some injury issues in his early years, but Nick is a hell of a football player,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the Scouting Combine. “We got to see him not only go through the season, played through another major injury with the hand injury, but it was really the first time that he had a full offseason. Nick is one of our guys. He’s a powerful man. I have a lot of love for Nick and what he’s gone through. His first couple years, it was frustrating just to watch him go through the injuries. Hopefully, we can get his contract worked out.”
Should the price be too steep for the Packers, Missouri’s Charles Harris, Auburn’s Carl Lawson, UCLA’s Takk McKinley and Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt are all first-round possibilities as pure outside linebacker candidates.
McKinley and Watt are two players who had formal interviews with the Packers at the Scouting Combine.
McKinley powered through most of his final two seasons with a shoulder injury that was repaired with surgery on Monday. The recovery timeline is four to six months, he said. McKinley did a little of everything as a senior with 61 tackles, 10 sacks, 18 tackles for losses, six passes defensed, three forced fumbles and three hurries.
“First things first. I got to get healthy,” McKinley said. “There's a lot of talent in the NFL. When you get to the NFL, everybody's big, everybody's strong, everybody's athletic, so it's all about your technique. Once I get healthy, once I get the right coaching and once I get the right technique, I feel like for years to come I'll be one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL.”
Watt, the brother of Houston Texans star J.J. Watt, moved from tight end to outside linebacker in 2015. He starred in 2016 with 11.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for losses.
“The hardest thing for me was the steep learning curve, playing offense most of my life,” Watt said. “Reacting to different plays and dropping into coverage was new to me but, at this point, I’m pretty good at everything I do.”
Should the Packers need to replace Peppers (7.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits) and/or Jones (one sack but a team-high 16 quarterback hits), Michigan’s Taco Charlton and Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker are the best fits in the elephant role. In 2016, Charlton had 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for losses while Walker posted 16 sacks and 21.5 tackles for losses.
“I'm happy to see all the hard work has paid off so people can see how good of a player I am and how good of a player I will be,” Charlton said. “You know, this is just the beginning. I'm a guy who, I'm just touching the tip of the iceberg with how good of a player I'll be. And I'm only going to get better with the more football I play. I love the recognition I'm getting but I'm not satisfied. I won't be satisfied until people start saying, ‘He's one of the best guys out there.’ So, I'll continue to work. Anybody who works with me will see how driven I am. So, it doesn't stop. The mock drafts may say something, but in my head I'm an undrafted free agent guy. I'm happy but nothing's promised. I’ll continue to work hard.”
Perry, however, should be a priority for the Packers. He was arguably the best player on the defense last season and should be considered a building block for that unit going forward.
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.