Green Bay Packers: Ranking the NFC North linebackers

Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /
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Julius Peppers. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Julius Peppers. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

Much was made of Green Bay’s pressing need for an inside linebacker that could serve as both a tackling machine against the run along with having the range and foot speed to cover running backs, tight ends and even slot receivers, if necessary.

The Packers have made no secret of their intentions of moving Matthews back to the outside on a full-time basis, which leaves the promising, but coverage-deficient Jake Ryan manning the middle along with Sam Barrington, whose 2015 season ended even before it began when he was placed on injured reserve following a foot injury only one week into the year.

Barrington, it seems, is this year’s forgotten man. His prolonged absence has made us forget just how skilled he was as both a run-stuffer and in defending the pass during the latter part of the 2014 regular season.

The fourth-year veteran was a difference-maker that year when he began earning more playing time in place of the fading A.J. Hawk, as the Packers went from being the worst team at stopping the run in their first eight games to becoming the sixth-best unit in that area in the second half of the season.

In addition to showcasing the strength and toughness to take on ball carriers in the hole and pushing them back, Barrington also did a credible job dropping into coverage, as evidenced by his Week 13 performance against New England.

Sam Barrington. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Sam Barrington. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports photograph /

In fact, Barrington allowed only one throw to be completed against him that day demonstrating the ability to break on passes while in zone coverage. The 25-year-old has all the physical tools to be a three-down linebacker.

Fourth-round pick Blake Martinez will also get his share of snaps both on defense and special teams. The rookie defender doesn’t possess outward measurables from an athletic standpoint, but he’s a detail-oriented defender with outstanding instincts and awareness versus the run and pass.

Joe Thomas and rookie Beniquez Brown should be useful backups as inside linebackers. It’s uncertain if both of them will end up making the final roster, but the undersized Thomas does bring an element of speed and lateral quickness to contribute as a sub-package player. At 229 pounds, Brown is similarly undersized and looks to be strictly a special teams piece who plays faster than he times.

Returning Matthews to his original position on a full-time basis allows Green Bay to boast the deepest group of outside rushers in the division.

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the still-in-his-prime Matthews who is among the most explosive defensive players in the NFL who uses his ability to read plays to force turnovers in addition to generating pressure.

The 36-year-old Julius Peppers may have his snaps scaled back, but he’s no average 30-something in that he hardly ever succumbs to injury and still uses his unique combination of power, speed, length and flexibility to make plays.

The mere mention of the under-achieving Nick Perry might be frustrating for some Packers fans given his first-round pedigree, but the 265-pound edge defender packs a punch as a pure bull rusher. He also utilizes his size/strength traits to seal the edge against the run. The best is yet to come for the Detroit native if he can stay on the field and show better consistency.

Datone Jones is ready to have a breakout season.
Green Bay Packers defensive end Datone Jones. Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports /

Datone Jones is former first-round pick who gets lost in the wash as a 3-4 defensive lineman. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers might have stumbled onto something last season in shifting the UCLA product outside the tackles, as Jones put his quickness and agility to good use in going around blockers.

Third-round pick Kyler Fackrell might turn out to be the proverbial cherry atop the ice cream sundae given his prototypical six-foot-five frame along with his quickness off the snap, footwork and ability to chase plays down the line. The 25-year-old is no typical rookie. His maturity level should make a smooth transition into the pro game.

2015 saw the Green and Gold rank as the seventh-best pass-rushing defense in terms of sack production, there’s no reason to believe that the Boys from Packers News can’t better that total provided they get relatively injury-free seasons from their deep assortment of hybrid edge players.

Next: Next up: Minnesota Vikings