In this series we take a close look at the Green Bay Packers 90-man roster on the verge of training camp and discuss each player’s chances of making the final 53.
The Green Bay Packers roster was depleted by injuries in 2013, and there wasn’t a position that felt it more than outside linebacker.
Clay Matthews missed five games with a broken thumb. Nick Perry was in and out of the lineup, nursing a foot fracture. The injury situation got so bad Mike Neal had to play almost exclusively at outside linebacker, his secondary position.
Already without Matthews and with Perry playing injured, the Packers outside linebackers were a thin group going into the playoffs.
And even then, injuries forced Neal and Mulumba to leave the Packers’ playoff loss against San Francisco prematurely. At one point in the game things got so desolate at the position, Capers played defensive end Datone Jones at outside linebacker.
Considering outside linebacker is the most important position on a 3-4 defense, it’s understandable why the Packers struggled to put San Francisco away at home during the wildcard round.
Now, as 2014 approaches, the Packers need to not only stay healthy, but they need depth at outside linebacker.
Signing veteran free agent, Julius Peppers, was the Packers’ first move to bolster their pass rush this offseason. Drafting Carl Bradford and signing Adrian Hubbard in undrafted free agency should also help.
Green Bay needs several players on their roster that can get after the quarterback. Hopefully, the Packers can get a lot of production this year out of what seems to be a deep group at outside linebacker.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (8)
The Packers still have one of the league’s premiere pass rushers in Clay Matthews. In only twelve games, seven wearing a club, Matthews recorded 41 tackles, 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and 33 pressures last season.
On the one hand, it was another season with Matthews struggling to stay healthy, while on the other, it shows even injured and not 100%, Matthews makes an impact on the field.
Matthews is as good as they get as a pass rusher, but is ability to defend the run is perhaps the most underrated part of his game. He’s one of the most well-rounded linebackers in the NFL.
In his five-year career, Matthews has averaged ten sacks and 52 pressures per season. Impressive numbers considering the all-pro linebacker has missed nearly a dozen games because of injury in those five years.
Perhaps, injuries will always be the one downside to Matthews’ game. A consequence to his all-out playing style.
Regardless, the Packers defense needs Matthews on the field. They struggled with him out of the lineup. The playoff loss to San Francisco was a testament to that.
Matthews is the guy opposing offenses key on in their pass protection, making his pass rush numbers even more impressive.
Hopefully, this year Matthews will have a better supporting cast around him and not be the only playmaker in the Packers front seven offenses have to account for.
Green Bay is hoping Peppers is another playmaker they can add to the mix, even if he’s 34 and entering his thirteenth season in the NFL.
Peppers led all Chicago defensive linemen in 2013 in snaps from scrimmage with 865. He also led a struggling Chicago defensive unit in sacks with 7.5 and pressures with 40. Although, his production was down from previous seasons. In 2012, he recorded 11.5 sacks and 56 pressures and in 2011 eleven sacks and 70 pressures.
Before Green Bay signed the veteran free agent, Chicago released him to save cap space as they move toward a younger, cheaper roster.
So was the decline in Pepper’s production last year a result of age or a poor supporting cast in Chicago?
The Packers are more than willing to find out.
Peppers is still a physical freak, who’s recorded 119 sacks in his career and knows how to get after the quarterback. He may be just what the Packers need on defense.
Green Bay is confident in Pepper’s ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. All early indications show the Packers are going to use him in creative ways on their defense and move him all over the field. He can play outside or inside, upright in a two-point stance or as a down lineman with his hand in the dirt.
Peppers will be a nice complement to Matthews and the Packers young front seven. Green Bay wants to generate more quarterback pressure this season, and that is exactly what Peppers can do.
Perry may lose his starting job to Peppers, but he should still play a significant role on defense.
I’m not as down on Perry as others may be. Injuries have severely hijacked his young career. As a rookie, he missed ten games with a broken wrist. In 2013, he was in and out of the lineup because of injuries.
Perry also lost his starting job to Mike Neal a few games into the season after he failed to generate consistent pressure off the left side.
However, Perry showed flashes of the player the Packers drafted in the first round in 2012.
Replacing Matthews at right outside linebacker, Perry registered two sacks and a forced fumble against Detroit in Week 5, and he showed his ability off the edge again the following week with another sack and forced fumble against Baltimore.
In fact, in only 374 snaps last year, Perry registered 28 tackles, 4 sacks, and 25 quarterback pressures. He averaged a pressure every eight pass attempts, which was the highest of any Packers pass rusher in 2013, even beating out Matthews (pressure every 8.5 attempts), Daniels (pressure every 10 attempts), and Neal (pressure every nine attempts).
Perry also held up admirably against the run, and his size and athleticism make him a handful for any offensive tackle to block on the edge.
Now, before it sounds like I’m waiving the Perry banner, the former USC Trojan still has a lot to work on when it comes to his game. First and foremost, he needs to stay healthy. The Packers will never know what they have in the third-year player unless he stays on the field. He also needs to play with a little more fire and use his athleticism and speed off the edge, rather than trying to bull rush every offensive lineman.
There is no doubt about it, 2013 is a make or break year for Perry. Hopefully, we’ll see Perry raise his game with Peppers and Neal competing with him for playing time.
Bradford is the wildcard at the position. As a fourth-round pick his roster spot is pretty secure, but his draft selection doesn’t guarantee him any playing time this season.
At Arizona State, Bradford was an explosive edge rusher in the Sun Devils’ DE/OLB hybrid position, leading the team in sacks in 2012 with 11.5 and again in 2013 with 8.5.
Bradford also showed a knack for making plays against the run, recording 39.5 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles as a two-year starter.
Bradford plays with a high motor and is relentless in getting after the quarterback. He could get some looks as a pass rush specialist this year, bringing some juice and fresh legs off the edge on third down.
He will have to compete with Perry, Neal, and Mulumba for playing time, but in the very least, he offers depth at the position and is a guy the Packers can develop on their roster.
The biggest roster battle at the position will be between Mulumba, Hubbard, and Palmer for the last spot or two at outside linebacker.
Mulumba has the edge over Hubbard and Palmer at this point. As an undrafted rookie, Mulumba not only made the roster last year, but he played a significant role on defense with Perry and Matthews sidelined with injuries.
In 361 snaps from scrimmage and four starts, including the Packers playoff loss against San Francisco, Mulumba recorded 31 tackles, one sack, and seven quarterback pressures.
Mulumba is a physical specimen. He has the size and athleticism to excel as a 3-4 outside linebacker, which helped him hold up well against the run. However, he struggled as a pass rusher in his rookie season, not recording a single sack until Week 17 against Chicago and was near the bottom on the team in creating quarterback pressure, registering only one pressure every 22 pass rush attempts.
Mulumba will need to show better pass rush ability in camp to keep his roster spot, especially with Hubbard, Bradford, and Peppers now at the position.
Hubbard could make a move at the position with a strong training camp. Many draft pundits had Hubbard pegged as an early-to-mid round pick going into this past spring. He has the physical tools to excel at outside linebacker in the NFL.
However, Hubbard went undrafted because of concerns raised about the condition of his heart after medical examinations at the combine showed a possible abnormality.
Hubbard has been medically cleared to play and signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent.
Hubbard brings a lot of upside to the position. At 6-foot-6 and 257 pounds, he ran a blazing 4.69 forty and has long 34.5-inch arms and a 38.5-inch vertical. Hubbard moves well in space and had decent production in college as a two-year starter, recording 74 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and 12.5 sacks.
Hubbard didn’t flash the pass rush ability in 2013 he did the year before as a sophomore. Despite his size and physical ability, Hubbard’s effort was inconsistent on the field and questions about his motor also hurt his draft stock.
Hubbard needs to show he can play with a little more fire and be more physical, especially at a position defined by generating quarterback pressure.
Palmer enters his second season with his back against the wall. As a sixth-round pick, Palmer had a quiet rookie season. He only played 200 snaps from scrimmage and saw action in six games, recording 17 tackles, zero sacks, and four pressures.
Long Shot: Jayrone Elliott, 6-3, 255
Elliott is an undrafted rookie who led Toledo’s defense in sacks (9) and tackles for loss (14) as a senior.
In his first and only year as a starter in college, Elliott also recorded 70 tackles and forced five fumbles as a defensive end.
Elliott has decent speed (4.76) and will try to make the shift from a college defensive end to an NFL outside linebacker. With the position as stocked as it is, it will be difficult for Elliot to crack the 53-man roster.
However, the undrafted rookie out of Toledo could make his case for the Packers’ practice squad with a strong camp.
With the defense looking to get more creative and versatile, the Packers go heavy at the position and keep six outside linebackers on their final roster: Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Carl Bradford, Andy Mulumba, and Adrian Hubbard.
Previous Position Breakdowns:
DEFENSE – Defensive Line