Green Bay Packers: 2017 team is vulnerable at outside linebacker

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /
LANDOVER, MD – JANUARY 10: Quarterback Kirk Cousins
LANDOVER, MD – JANUARY 10: Quarterback Kirk Cousins /

The greatest vulnerability of the 2017 Green Bay Packers is at outside linebacker.

Many years, it seems that the Packers leave themselves susceptible to injury at a particular position, and it ends up costing them.

Last season, Sam Shields’ concussion devastated the cornerback position.

In 2015, Jordy Nelson’s ACL tear crippled the passing attack.

This year, a significant injury to Nick Perry could spell doom for the outside linebacker position.

It’s impossible to protect against every injury, and losing star players hurts no matter what.

But even without a Perry injury, the Packers are rolling the dice at one of the most important positions of a 3-4 defense.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

Perry was justly rewarded this offseason with a five year, $60 million contract. He doubled his career high of games started with 12 and posted 11 sacks. He’s become both the Packers’ most feared edge rusher and by far their best run defender.

But outside of Perry, the Packers are perilously thin.

Losing Datone Jones and Julius Peppers this offseason will have an impact. Both of the former first round picks had excellent size and speed, and they played a combined 1,132 defensive snaps last season.

Clay Matthews is the presumptive starter opposite #53. He’s been the subject of intense debate the past two seasons as his production has waned on a fat contract.

It could be because of injuries, age, or some other factors, but Matthews has clearly been less explosive off the snap and less powerful at the point of attack in the past two seasons.

In addition to the declining sack totals, offensive tackles have had no problem redirecting Matthews in the run game. Pro Football Focus gave Matthews a grade of just 39.0 in run defense last season.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

If healthy, Matthews could reemerge this season as a viable outside linebacker. But it’s extremely risky to count on that happening. It may be time for Matthews to give up battling 320-pound offensive tackles and play off the line of scrimmage more at inside linebacker.

After Matthews, the Packers’ depth consists of Kyler Fackrell, Vince Biegel, Jayrone Elliott, and Jordan Tripp.

Fackrell made some plays in his sparse opportunities last season. But it was clear that he needed to add significant weight and strength to be more than an occasional pass rusher.

He’s apparently added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason. But before counting on Fackrell, the Packers would be wise to remember the second year campaigns of promising rookies Davante Adams, Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins in the past two years.

Biegel is an intriguing prospect with some striking similarities to Matthews coming out of college. But it would be a mistake to rely heavily on a fourth round rookie in his first NFL season.

Elliott and Tripp, meanwhile, are great special teams players who have never played consistent snaps on defense. Elliott has flashed in the past, and maybe this is the season where he finally breaks out with extended playing time. But again, it’s risky to count on.

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Outside of Perry, the Packers have a lot of hope at outside linebacker and not a lot of proven production.

Things might be OK, but Perry has battled injuries in the past, and outside linebacker is a position where a steady rotation of players is crucial to keep legs fresh.

Either Matthews or the unproven players need to step up this season, otherwise, the Packers could find themselves next offseason in just as dire need at the position as they were when they first drafted Perry after the Colin Kaepernick disaster of 2013.