To get the elephant in the room out of the way let’s just say it: Clay Matthews needs to be back.
His position on the other hand may have more fluidity. Pettine may try to move Matthews around as much as possible to take advantage of matchups and disguise coverages.
There has been a call from many in the fan base that he needs to go, but a team with a pass rush problem would not be wise to get rid of its best outside threat. Had another player developed as a viable threat, a better argument could be made. But with no one player becoming someone offenses fear, releasing Matthews would only compound the problem.
Matthews’ pass rush stats may not warrant the cap space but, his overall impact on the defense can’t be overlooked. Matthews still has better coverage skills of any outside linebacker on the team. And although his aggressiveness sometimes gets the better of him, he still makes more plays in the backfield than any other linebacker.
Nick Perry has yet to prove he can play all 16 games. After being rewarded with a big contract in the offseason, Perry once again suffered another injury, this time to his hand. Perry still sets the edge as well as any player on the team and is a solid edge rusher. The key is staying healthy and becoming the constant bookend with Matthews the Packers envisioned when they drafted him.
Vince Biegel, like Montravius Adams, had an injury affect his development. The Wisconsin product wasn’t able to get on the field till after Green Bay’s bye week and played like a rookie once he did. T.J. Watt got all the coverage going into the draft but Biegel was the heart and soul of that Wisconsin defense. If he can stay healthy and be the player he was at Wisconsin, the Packers should have a solid player to work with.
Ahmad Brooks couldn’t stay healthy and looked past his prime when in the lineup. At his age, I would assume the Packers will pass on bringing him back for another go-round.
Kyler Fackrell showed improvements but still has a long way to go. He still needs to improve strength and coverage skills. He was a contributor on special teams and is young enough to still develop on the defense.
Blake Martinez showed great improvement and if he can take the next step of development in pass coverage, we could have a solid inside backer. Martinez was solid against the run and could benefit having some speed next to him at inside linebacker next year.
He often made too many mistakes in coverage and doesn’t have the top-end speed to make those mistakes minimal. Pairing Martinez with a chase type inside linebacker could improve the overall performance of the “D”.
Jake Ryan can be a huge help on run downs but is a big liability in pass coverage. If someone else is brought in Ryan could have a role as an early-down linebacker and solid back up to Martinez.
Injuries pretty much wiped out Joe Thomas’ year. He is undersized and was utilized on passing downs in 2016 and could be a solid special teams player if he’s on the roster in 2018.
Verdict: Like in the case of cornerback, both the GM and coaches have their work cut out for them.
Without knowing what type of defense Pettine intends to run it’s hard to gauge the linebacker group. The NFL has become a passing league, so nickel has become the default base defense with two inside linemen and two outside rushers. The definition between 3-4 or 4-3 is a little less important. Either way the outside linebackers will be counted on as edge rushers with coverage responsibilities on passing downs.
Exactly what Pettine has designs for are yet to be seen and, it will probably take until midseason before we see the big picture.
A move to inside or weak side linebacker (depending on the package) for Matthews would be a wise move. He can still rush on passing downs and can roam all over the defense, rarely coming from the same side twice in a possession.
Martinez can and should get better in pass coverage and the addition of a speedy inside presence could be a huge boost.
The Packers will be in good position to add an impact rusher in the draft. Free agency players will be at a premium and all top pass rushers will more than likely end up back with their old teams via the franchise or transition tag.
Free agency at inside linebacker won’t break the bank. ILBs have less value and there could be a good player that fits for a reasonable price available for the new GM.
It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see Gutekunst treat edge rusher the same way Thompson did running backs in last year’s draft. Taking multiple players at the position in hopes of hitting on at least one solid player and a prospect to develop.