Two-a-Days: Outside LBs

Our two-positions-a-day training camp preview continues with the outside linebackers, which feature young starters Clay Matthews III and Brad Jones. We tell you about their strengths and weaknesses, and use our 20-20 general manager's goggles to find better (and worse) options.

Left outside linebacker

Probable starter:

Brad Jones.

Depth:

Brady Poppinga.

The lowdown

Jones was a seventh-round pick last year, making him a long shot to make the roster. He wound up failing his pre-camp physical, further lengthening his odds of making the team. Jones played good enough in the preseason to earn a roster spot, and the team's faith in him was paid off after Aaron Kampman tore his ACL during a midseason game against San Francisco. Rather than the league's fourth-ranked defense going in the tank, the Packers improved to No. 2 overall and No. 1 against the run. Jones' athleticism and experience in the 3-4 during his career at Colorado helped him make the surprising transition. While Kampman finished with 3.5 sacks, Jones tallied four — all in the final five games of the regular season. And despite finishing the season at only about 230 pounds, he proved adept at setting the point in the run game and funneling the action back inside. Plus, he was a sure tackler. While Jones split time in the starting lineup with Poppinga during offseason practices, that seemed like little more than a way of keeping him hungry. Jones' well-rounded game all but makes him a lock to be in the starting lineup. The only depth is Poppinga, who is entering his sixth season in the league. Supremely tough in the run game, Poppinga lacks Jones' agility in the passing game. Poppinga's 20 sacks and 39 tackles for losses at BYU never translated to the pros. So, while he's confident he can provide the pass rush this defense needs, his four career sacks in 75 games probably tell the tale.

Quoteworthy

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers, on Jones: "He's stronger, he's more confident. You think back to last year, we had a hard time getting Brad — he had a hard time passing his physical test when he first came in here. So, it took us like three weeks to get him on the field. So, he's much more confident. I think he is stronger. We'll have to wait and see, but normally for me, players make the biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2, because they come in, they understand what it's all about, they understand the focus it's going to take and how these games come down to just a little thing here or there."

Could be better

This looked like a position of strength last year, when Kampman and Jeremy Thompson were in the mix. Kampman, however, is in Jacksonville and Thompson is out of the league because of injuries. That the Packers passed on a bunch of outside linebackers in April's draft could come back to bite them, no matter how good Bryan Bulaga and Mike Neal play.

Could be worse

No doubt the Packers wouldn't have had the luxury to grab their left tackle of the future (Bulaga) and plan ahead for Johnny Jolly's suspension (Neal) in the first two rounds had they not gotten the steal of the draft with Jones. Look at last year's draft, where first-rounders Aaron Maybin (none), Larry English (two) and Robert Ayers (none) combined for half as many sacks as Jones, who was taken about 200 picks later than those guys.


Right outside linebacker

Probable starter:

Clay Matthews III.

Depth:

Poppinga, Cyril Obiozor, Robert Francois, Frank Zombo, John Russell.


Clay Matthews III
George Gojkovich/Getty Images
The lowdown

According to the "draft value chart," the Packers gave up far too much in giving New England a second-rounder and two third-rounders to move back into the first round to take Matthews at No. 26 overall. Turns out Ted Thompson was wise to not follow the script. Matthews was nothing short of brilliant last season in putting himself in the running for defensive rookie of the year and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. The relentless Matthews started the final 13 games of the season and finished with a team-high 10 sacks. That's the most by a Packers rookie in team history and the second-most among all NFL rookies last year (Washington's Brian Orakpo had 11). He showed his big-play flair by tearing the ball out of Adrian Peterson's hands and returning it for a touchdown at the shocked Metrodome in Week 4. He finished with two forced fumbles and four recoveries, including one of each in the playoff loss at Arizona. Not until that playoff game did Matthews begin to see a steady diet of double-team blocks. There's no doubt it will be a more challenging path to the quarterback this season. Depth? Outside of Poppinga, there is none. Obiozor played a little special teams last year. Francois spent the end of the season on the practice squad. Zombo and Russell were undrafted free agent this year.

Quoteworthy

Matthews, on if he hit his ceiling last year: "Absolutely not. I'm a (second-) year player, there is no ceiling for me right now. I feel like there's — going back and watching the film — I feel like there's a lot to improve on from last year. I'm bigger, faster, stronger. I feel like I'm ready to go right now. I'm ready for the season."

Could be better

The only way it could be better is if there was proven depth. Matthews is that good of an all-around player.

Could be worse

The Packers could have kept picks Nos. 41, 73 and 83 in the 2009 draft rather than give them all up for Matthews. At 41, they could have had Carolina's Everette Brown (2.5 sacks), Connor Barwin (4.5 sacks), Cleveland's David Veikune (none), Baltimore's Paul Kruger (none) or Arizona's Cody Brown (none). The only linebackers that were in play at 73 and 83 were Detroit's DeAndre Levy (none) and New England's Tyrone McKenzie (none). So, compare Matthews' 10 sacks to the combined seven from these other seven linebackers, and it's easy to see that Thompson hit a home run.

On a scale of 1 to 10 ...

With a 10 being Charles Woodson against anybody, a 5 being Mason Crosby from 45 yards and the ball on the right hash and a 1 being Allen Barbre against anybody, this position group rates a 6.5.

Matthews is a 10 and Jones is a 7.5 but the lack of depth drags down this grade. It's not just that there's only Poppinga as a veteran reserve, but it's that the others haven't even proven to be quality special-teams performers. They'll probably keep five outside linebackers, and there's a good chance the fifth one isn't on this roster.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and 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 twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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