Aug 23, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) rushes the ball past Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Sam Barrington (58) during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
* = starter; + = roster spot
* Clay Matthews
* Julius Peppers
* Sam Barrington
+ Mike Neal
* Nick Perry
+ Jayrone Elliott
+ Andy Mulumba
+ Nate Palmer
+ Jake Ryan
Jul 30, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews arrives for training camp at Ray Nitschke Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
The linebacker position for the Packers somehow manages to have both the best player on the defense as well as one of the most-talked-about weaknesses on the entire team.
That best player I mentioned is obviously Clay Matthews, and he’s actually been tabbed to be at least part of the solution at the problem spot of ILB.
Matthews is of course an outside linebacker by trade (and by contract), but the combination of his unique abilities and lackluster alternative options led to him being tabbed to spend time on the inside during last season. Once he stepped — albeit reluctantly — into that ILB slot, the defense as a whole became a much more functional unit.
Going into the offseason, the thought was that Green Bay HAD to add new talent to take over that ILB spot and let Matthews reclaim his usual spot on the outside. Though the Packers added new options for the spot, it was decided Matthews is still the best bet for having the defense reach its maximum potential at this point.
Next to him will be Sam Barrington, who stepped up last season to solidify the other of those middle linebacker spots. After not getting much time on the field early on, Barrington was chosen over the flailing options of Jamari Lattimore and Brad Jones to hopefully inject some more production. He did that and more, providing a stable option there that covered up at least some of the coverage problems over the middle. After an offseason spent being treated as a starter, he should be ready to show even more.
Aug 3, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Julius Peppers (left) and tackle Jeremy Vujnovich practice during training camp at Ray Nitschke Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
On the outside, the pairing of Nick Perry and Julius Peppers should be the other starters.
Peppers of course provided a great pass rush option across from Matthews, garnering 7 sacks, 2 INTs and 2 TDs in his first season working off the defensive line. Hopefully that can continue despite his age (35); his much-discussed status as an “athletic freak” will come in handy on that part.
Perry on the other hand just needs to stay healthy. He’s had injury issues in every season, but played the most games of his career so far in 2014 (15) and garnered 3 sacks with a forced fumble and fumble recovery in part-time duty. If he stays on the field, he should see a good deal more work; hopefully he can produce with it. If he does, not only will the Packers be happy, but so will he (his contract is up after the season, so he stands to earn himself a nice payday).
Behind them is a decent group of players to choose from.
Nov 9, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Jayrone Elliott (91) during the game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 55-14. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
First to secure a spot among them is Mike Neal. He’s been a nice part-time option to rush the passer for years now; last year he was 4th on the team in sacks (4.5), 5th in QB hits (8), and 6th in pressures (11). He has shown an ability to stay on the field (two straight years of being active all 16 games) and be able to step in for starts as needed (3 last season, 10 in 2013). That should be enough to secure his spot.
Jayrone Elliott has made a habit of putting on a show in the preseason, so much so that it kept him on the roster last season. He didn’t do much in 2014, but with a year of learning the defense he has a good opportunity to make more of an impact in 2015.
Jake Ryan was a 4th round pick this past draft and looks to be someone who can eventually jump into the starting ILB spot that Matthews currently has to hold down. If he can live up to that sooner than later, the defense can put its best player in his best position and be better off, now and in the future.
For the last two spots, the combination of Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer look like the best bets. Mulumba can be a decent backup on the outside, and his years of being in the Packers system will undoubtedly help his case for a spot. The same goes for Palmer, except on the inside (where he’s spent time this offseason and impressed despite playing with a cast over one hand). The other options — including former 4th rounder Bradford — just haven’t shown nearly enough to warrant being given a roster spot.
What Green Bay has at the position may not be the best set of linebackers in the league, but the talent is there to help upgrade upon the issues that led to lackluster ratings in 2014.