Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews sacks St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford during the second half at the Edward Jones Dome. Green Bay defeated St. Louis 30-20. Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Previous Defensive Positions: Defensive Line
Outside linebacker is the premier position of the 3-4 defense, and with Clay Matthews secured in Green Bay for the foreseeable future, the young Green Bay Packers defense has something to build around. Though Matthews is the Packers most gifted defensive player, he can’t do it alone. Green Bay needs other players to step up at outside linebacker and provide consistent quarterback pressure on the field.
This is what the Green Bay Packers defense lacked last year. Consistent quarterback pressure outside of the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker. When Matthews missed four games last year with a hamstring injury, the Packers struggled to pressure the quarterback. Who will step up this year if Matthews misses time again?
The Packers need other edge rushers to emerge on the roster—not only to take some pressure off of Matthews on game day, but also to prevent the major drop-off in pressure that occurs if Matthews is out with an injury. The Packers lost Erik Walden and Frank Zombo in free agency, so they will be looking for young talent to emerge at the position. Second year players, Nick Perry and Dezman Moses, could add some juice to the Packers pass rush, and athletic defensive linemen, Datone Jones and Mike Neal, will also help the group out. The Packers could even see some contributions from unknown rookies at the position.
A lot of questions remain at the position heading into the 2013 season. Let’s see how the roster could shape out.
Outside Linebacker (6)
Jan 15, 2012; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) before the 2011 NFC divisional playoff game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Matthews continues to be one of the elite pass rushers in the league, recording 13.5 sacks in 2012, but even more impressively, each year he seems to get better in all facets of the game. Matthews was arguably the Packers best run-defender last season, and even held up well against the pass when he occasionally dropped back in coverage. Matthews is an elite athlete and has a motor that doesn’t stop on the field. Green Bay made him the highest paid defensive player this offseason, and for good reason. He is the heart of the defense, and with a stronger supporting cast this season, Matthews’ play will continue to shine.
The only drawback with Matthews is the reoccurring hamstring injuries. So far, each year of his young NFL career, Matthews has dealt with a pulled hamstring. He missed four games last season because of this injury. Let’s hope this isn’t an issue that continues to dog him each season, and cut an excellent career short.
Perry enters the 2013 season with a lot to prove. After missing a majority of last season with a wrist injury, Perry is virtually a rookie this season. It is important, as a fan, to be patient with Perry’s transition to outside linebacker. Perry showed some promise in his limited action last season, showing good push at the line and quickness for a player his size. Perry has all the physical tools to be an excellent 3-4 edge rusher, so if he puts it all together and gets comfortable in the position, the Packers defense could have a real formidable one-two punch with Matthews and Perry. Perry doesn’t need to be an all-pro this season or record double-digits sacks to be effective. If he holds up well against the run and provides consistent pressure from the left side, this will greatly help out Matthews and the Green Bay defense.
May 22, 2012; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Perry (53) before organized team activities at Ray Nitschke Field. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
Look back at week two against the Bears last season to see what Perry could mean to this defense if he plays to his potential. Perry consistently collapsed the pocket from the left side, freeing up Matthews, who recorded 3.5 sacks against Cutler and the Bears. Perry didn’t record a sack in this game, but his performance made a big difference in preventing Matthews from seeing double-teams all game. Watch Perry’s progress closely this offseason. His performance will be integral to the Packers defense taking the next step this season.
Moses is the only backup player whose roster spot is most likely safe this season. Moses recorded four sacks last year in limited playing time. He started for an injured Matthews in four games, and provided consistent depth at outside linebacker as he rotated with Erik Walden during games. Moses plays with a high motor and could push Perry for playing time. Moses will also prove to be important if Matthews has to miss some time with hamstring issues.
Palmer, Mulumba, and Savage are young, unproven rookies that should bring some good competition to outside linebacker. With Walden and Zombo departing in free agency, the Packers will need one or two of these players to step up and provide some depth at the position. All three players played defensive end in college, so we’ll see how well they transition to 3-4 outside linebacker in the Packers defense. They will each have a good shot at making the roster, so this will be a position battle to keep a close eye on in training camp this year.
Palmer is about the right size for a 3-4 outside linebacker, and showed some pass rush ability in college, recording 7.5 sacks and 27 quarterback hurries as senior for Illinois State. The Packers seem to really like the sixth round pick. Coach Greene went down to Illinois State prior to the draft to take a close look at Palmer in person, and seemed to really like the athletic defensive end. Palmer could be one of those surprise camp players that plays well above the round he was drafted.
Michigan Wolverines running back Vincent Smith runs with the ball past Eastern Michigan Eagles defensive lineman Andy Mulumba in the third quarter at Michigan Stadium. Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Mulumba was brought in as an undrafted free agent and is a big linebacker that can hold up well against the run. As a defensive end at Eastern Michigan, Mulumba didn’t have great production as a pass rusher, only recording 4.5 sacks in his last two years in college. However, Mulumba has a lot of raw ability as an edge rusher, and the Packers must like his potential. Maybe under the right tutelage, Mulumba can develop into a pass rushing outside linebacker. If anything, Mulumba will be placed on the practice squad until he develops further.
Savage is an undrafted rookie who was signed as a tryout player after the Packers rookie minicamp. Savage would be an undersized defensive end in the pros, so switching to outside linebacker seemed to be his only chance at making an NFL roster. Just like Mulumba, Savage has raw ability as an edge rusher and will be an undrafted rookie who will get a good shot at making the final roster this offseason. The Packers need young players to step up at outside linebacker, so expect a lot from the rookies at the position.
It doesn’t look like there are any long shots at outside linebacker on the roster currently. Each player at the position should be in contention for a roster spot, so instead, let’s take a look at some of the other options the Packers have at the position beyond just the players listed as outside linebackers.
Dom Capers has been experimenting with Neal at outside linebacker so far in OTAs. This has been one of the big surprises of the Green Bay offseason so far, and it looks like Neal is adjusting well to playing linebacker so far. Neal is a versatile defensive lineman who showed some pass rush ability last season with 4.5 sacks, and in the very least, Neal’s limited play at outside linebacker will allow Capers to get creative with some defensive packages.
Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson is brought down by Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Neal at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Lattimore transitioned from outside linebacker to inside linebacker last offseason. Lattimore provides good depth at inside linebacker, but considering the depth at the position, Lattimore could be moved back to the outside, if needed. Lattimore’s versatility gives the Packers some options on game day.
Last year the Packers kept five outside linebackers on their 53-man roster (Matthews, Perry, Walden, Moses, Zombo), but this didn’t seem to be enough when the Packers were faced with injuries at the position during the season. I expect the Packers to keep at least five again with flex players like Neal or Lattimore providing additional depth at the position.
Green Bay will start Matthews and Perry with Moses as the top backup at the position, and will probably keep the best two players out of Palmer, Mulumba, and Savage.
Whatever happens, the Packers need to find depth at the position heading into the 2013 season, and with the roster full of young, ascending players, it should be an exciting position to watch develop in training camp.