This is the sixth in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to the 2016 draft. The series continues with the linebackers.
GREEN BAY – Pick a linebacker, any linebacker.
The Packers won’t be so haphazard in their draft selections at the position, of course, but with thinning ranks at both the inside and outside spots, any linebacker Green Bay drafts will fill a major need.
He almost certainly won’t be the last linebacker the Packers take, either.
Mike McCarthy’s postseason announcement that Clay Matthews was returning to outside linebacker as his “starting point” was no surprise. Matthews saved the run defense by moving inside the last 1½ seasons, but the Packers’ best pass rusher needs to be in a pass-rushing position more often than not for the defense to reach the championship level McCarthy seeks.
The announcement also signaled, along with the release of Nate Palmer earlier this month, a concerted effort to upgrade the inside positions in 2016.
Currently, the top two are Sam Barrington and Jake Ryan. Barrington missed all but Week 1 of 2015 following a season-ending ankle injury, and Ryan will be entering his second year after taking Palmer’s starting spot late last season.
They’ll provide a capable tandem as run-stoppers in the base 3-4, but more options are needed for certain matchups in the nickel package. Adding a run-and-chase pass-coverage ’backer would give defensive coordinator Dom Capers more variety in his most common alignment, as the Packers employ their nickel more than any other package.
An inside linebacker (or two) is also a necessity for depth. The only players behind Barrington and Ryan on the depth chart are practice-squad holdover and converted outside linebacker Carl Bradford, plus the undersized Joe Thomas, who played exclusively in the dime defense last season.
Outside linebacker is nearly as high, if not as high, a priority, even though the need isn’t quite as immediate. Outside linebackers are the stars of the 3-4 and pass rushers are the biggest difference-makers on defense across the league, so the Packers’ situation calls for reinforcements.
Julius Peppers is entering his 15th season and the last on his current contract, while 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry re-signed for just one season and Mike Neal remains a free agent.
The 29-year-old Matthews will need a long-term bookend opposite him as he continues through the prime of his career. Third-year pro Jayrone Elliott will get an opportunity to earn more snaps, the experiment with Datone Jones as a stand-up pass rusher will continue, and newly acquired Lerentee McCray will be out to prove he can do more than the special-teams work that accounted for most of his playing time in Denver. But all that is not likely to be enough beyond 2016.
While Peppers may continue to defy Father Time and Perry could re-sign with Green Bay yet again, there are no guarantees for 2017 and beyond. Finding Matthews a new long-term partner would be a wise, prudent investment.
View previous stories in the position-by-position breakdown QB: Drafting another not out of the questionRB: Future not entirely clear for PackersWR: Playoffs changed Packers' outlookOL: Future uncertainty looms DB: In good shape heading into draft