This is the sixth in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to training camp. The series continues with the linebackers.
GREEN BAY – As frustrating as the setbacks have been, Nick Perry remained ever-confident in what he could do on the football field when healthy.
It showed in 2016.
The 6-foot-3, 265-pound linebacker enjoyed the first offseason program of his five-year NFL career last summer, the first step in what turned out to be a breakthrough season for the former first-round pick.
While a broken hand forced him to sit out two games in December, Perry still established career highs in tackles (52) and sacks (11) in 14 regular-season games with 12 starts.
The Packers quickly identified the 27-year-old pass-rusher as a priority in free agency, re-signing Perry to a long-term contract shortly after the negotiating period began in March.
The defense will be counting on Perry, six-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews and a blend of young linebackers to help fill the void of 15-year veteran Julius Peppers, who returned to Carolina after three seasons with the Packers.
Despite having to wear a club, Perry was still effective late in the season. He added three sacks in the Packers’ final two regular-season games and another against Dallas in the NFC Divisional playoff, pushing his postseason sack total to seven in five games, third-best in franchise history.
Matthews, back at his natural outside position, got off to a strong start in 2016 with sacks in each of his first three games. However, the momentum was stymied by a nagging hamstring injury that forced him to miss four contests.
Two weeks after his return to the field, Matthews then suffered a shoulder injury on a blind-side block from former teammate Allen Barbre in the Packers’ Week 12 win over Philadelphia.
Matthews didn’t miss any games but was limited to mostly rushing on third down over the next four weeks. He returned to a more consistent role in late December, recording a pair of sacks and forced fumbles during the final month of the season.
Once camp begins at the end of the month, 2016 third-round pick Kyler Fackrell, fourth-year veteran Jayrone Elliott and Wisconsin Rapids native Vince Biegel will be competing to carve out spots in the rotation behind Matthews and Perry.
Fackrell added more weight to his 6-foot-5 frame in preparation for Year 2, while Elliott focused on conditioning and consistency after re-signing with the Packers in March. Biegel participated in rookie orientation but then missed all of OTAs due to foot surgery.
Former Arizona standout Reggie Gilbert leads a hungry contingent of undrafted rushers. A converted 4-3 defensive end, Gilbert spent his entire rookie season learning his new position on the practice squad.
Joining Gilbert in the race for roster spots are rookie free agents Johnathan Calvin and Josh Letuilgasenoa, whom the Packers signed after a successful tryout at rookie orientation.
In the middle of the defense, the Packers return all four veteran inside linebackers who finished last year on the active roster, plus hybrid safety Morgan Burnett, who played extensively near the line of scrimmage throughout last season.
While Jake Ryan paced the group with 82 tackles, Joe Thomas wound up playing more snaps than any other Packers’ linebacker, a big jump after the former undrafted free agent played almost exclusively in the dime defense in 2015.
Competing with Ryan and Thomas for playing time will be 2016 fourth-round pick Blake Martinez and veteran Jordan Tripp, who joined the Packers last December and spent his first full offseason in Green Bay.
In addition to the returning inside linebackers, Burnett and rookie second-round pick Josh Jones likely will see some action in a hybrid capacity throughout training camp.
Behind the four returning inside linebackers are practice-squad holdover Derrick Mathews, Grand Valley State rookie David Talley and Cody Heiman, who played both linebacker and running back during his four years at Division II Washburn.
COUNTDOWN TO CAMP ROSTER SERIESQBs: All four have goals in mind
RBs: Competition with five rookies behind Ty Montgomery
WRs: After top three, competition will be fierce
OL: Mixture of veterans and youth
DL: Mike Daniels leads defensive line