In winning a Super Bowl title in 2010, the Packers got by at the outside linebacker spot opposite Clay Matthews with a former seventh-round draft pick, an undrafted rookie and a midseason “street” free-agent pickup.
But last season, that patchwork approach didn’t work. Two more undrafted rookies in Vic So’oto and Jamari Lattimore were added to the mix that included holdovers Brad Jones, Frank Zombo and Erik Walden, but the production simply wasn’t there.
Those five players accounted for just six sacks in the regular season, and the lack of a consistent pass rush opposite Matthews led the premier playmaker in the front seven to see his sack total more than cut in half, from 13½ in 2010 to just six in 2011, as defenses keyed on him more and more.
The Packers made their biggest investment at outside linebacker this past offseason since they drafted Matthews in the first round out of USC three years ago. Fellow USC alum Nick Perry was taken with the 28th overall draft pick in April (two picks later than Matthews, who was 26th in ’09) and was inserted at left outside linebacker with the No. 1 defense from day one of spring practices.
A thick-framed 6-3, 265, Perry was placed on the left side to combat “right-handed” running teams, which moves Matthews back to the right side, where he began his career as a rookie. While Perry’s development will be watched closely, Matthews has said it doesn’t matter to him where he lines up, and he expects to be rushing the passer from different angles regardless.
Should Perry establish himself as expected, the five players jockeying for his position a year ago will be fighting for a limited number of roster spots, and it’s possible they’ve already been passed on the depth chart by undrafted rookie Dezman Moses from Tulane. Moses was impressive throughout OTAs and minicamp, though he has yet to put on pads as an NFL player.
At inside linebacker, Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk return as veteran starters, but 2011 sixth-round pick D.J. Smith could be right on their heels. Smith started three games and played a considerable amount as a rookie when Bishop and Hawk were hurt, and he’ll push for playing time while likely establishing himself as a special-teams leader.
Robert Francois, who filled in along with Smith when injuries struck and had two interceptions and a forced fumble in three starts, returns for a third season with a reputation as a steady, reliable veteran.
Jones and Lattimore were switched to inside linebacker this spring before returning to their former outside spots as minicamp concluded, so they could add competition and depth inside as well.
The one new addition to the inside group is fifth-round draft pick Terrell Manning, who impressed as a pass rusher in his final two seasons at North Carolina State, racking up 10½ sacks.