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Packers by Position
Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter Pete Dougherty will be focusing on a different Packers position each day going into training camp. The schedule is as follows:
♦ Friday: Receivers/tight ends
♦ Saturday: Offensive line
♦ Sunday: Quarterbacks
♦ Monday: Running backs
♦ Tuesday: Defensive line
♦ Today: Linebackers
♦ Thursday: Defensive backs
♦ Friday: Special teams
After his rookie season, Clay Matthews already ranks as probably the Green Bay Packers’ second-best defensive player, behind only cornerback Charles Woodson.
The No. 26 pick overall in the 2009 draft started 13 games at right outside linebacker, finished with 10 sacks and was third in the voting for NFL defensive rookie of the year.
Now the Packers are looking for more from a player they think could be special.
“(Matthews) is the most complete outside linebacker that I have seen,” said Kevin Greene, the Packers’ outside linebackers coach and the No. 3 sacker in NFL history. “I’m friends with (all-time great outside linebackers) Lawrence Taylor, with Rickey Jackson, (Derrick) Thomas was a friend. (Matthews) has that ability. He has that fluid athleticism (in coverage) coupled with physicality coupled with a natural instinct to rush the passer. So he’s physical at the point of attack, he has a great skill set concerning rushing the passer, and he’s completely fluid in pass coverage and the things we ask him to do, more than I ever could have been.”
Hitting on the Matthews pick was especially huge for the Packers because of his position — outside linebackers are the key playmakers in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme and responsible for providing a good share of the pass rush. The Packers didn’t have any ready-made 3-4 outside linebackers from their previous scheme when they made the change last year, and the move of Aaron Kampman to outside linebacker from 4-3 defensive end provided only modest results opposite Matthews.
But after that strong rookie season, Matthews can count on being more of a focal point for opposing offensive coordinators, who will try to find ways to minimize his impact with increased chip blocks, double teams and rollouts or moving pockets away from his side.
The Packers nevertheless expect the same or better production from Matthews, and are likely to need it. In the biggest surprise of their offseason, they not only didn’t sign a free-agent outside linebacker to push second-year pro Brad Jones for the starting job opposite Matthews, they also didn’t draft one.
Jones turned into one of the Packers’ most pleasant surprises last year when as a seventh-round pick he replaced Kampman after the latter’s season ended with a knee injury Nov. 22. Jones started eight games, including the Packers’ wild-card playoff against Arizona, and performed credibly with four sacks and 11 quarterback hits, and at least OK play against the run.
The Packers are counting on Jones to be significantly improved after getting a full offseason in their workout program — he finished last year in the 235-pound range and now is the mid-240s. If he’s not as stout as Kampman or accomplished a pass rusher, his coverage ability gave Capers more flexibility in defensive play calling than he had before Kampman’s season ended.
“(Jones) did a good job in the games he started,” Capers said. “Many times a player makes the most progress from Year 1 to Year 2 because they understand what professional football is all about. He’s certainly had a good offseason from the standpoint, he’s probably about 10 pounds bigger right now than what he finished the season.”
Nevertheless, the Packers go into training camp shockingly vulnerable if Jones struggles, or if he or Matthews gets hurt.
Their top backup at outside linebacker is Brady Poppinga, a 30-year-old who in five previous NFL seasons has been a physical run defender but ineffective pass rusher after a 20-sack college career at Brigham Young.
Behind him, the Packers are looking for one of four unheralded players to show something in training camp: street free-agent Robert Francois, who at about 250 pounds looked much better this offseason than while playing almost 20 pounds heavier last year on the Packers’ practice squad; second-year pro Cyril Obiozor, who as an undrafted rookie was bumped up from the practice squad to the 53-man roster two weeks after Kampman’s injury; and undrafted rookies Frank Zombo (6-3, 254) and John Russell (6-3, 260).
Zombo has the easier transition of the two rookies, moving from college defensive end at Central Michigan, where he had 25½ sacks in his career. Russell was primarily a defensive tackle at Wake Forest and is making a major position change.
No matter how you look at it, Thompson is taking a big chance with that group, though he could add an outside linebacker in a trade or waiver pickup later in training camp.
“Brady Poppinga has played some and is a role player for us, does certain things really well,” Capers said. “So at least we’ve got three guys now we know a lot more about. How that fourth one works itself out, we’ll see how these guys compete and if we can come up with a fourth guy.”
Inside linebacker, on the other hand, is one of the Packers’ positions with the highest quality depth.
Nick Barnett, the team’s leading tackler last year, had a knee scope in the offseason that kept him off the practice field through the summer and will be looking to make some game-turning plays after being involved in no turnovers last year.
A.J. Hawk is likely the starter opposite Barnett, though it’s impossible to rule out fourth-year pro Desmond Bishop making a run at that job if he has another strong training camp. And Brandon Chillar, who signed a four-year contract extension late last season, will get extensive playing time in nickel packages, which the Packers used on about 60 percent of their defensive snaps last year.
After getting no new outside rushers of note this offseason, Capers will be looking for his inside linebackers to do more as zone blitzers this season.
“Nick Barnett showed last year he’s a good rusher coming off the edge. Brandon Chillar showed he can be capable,” Capers said. “Nick can rush from either inside or outside. We’ve got some different combinations. It might not be a 3-4 outside linebacker type or defensive end type, so we might have to seek it by different means.”