The seventh of a 10-part position-by-position analysis of the Packers' roster and how they should proceed during the offseason.
UNDER CONTRACT: Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Nick Perry, Andy Mulumba, Sam Barrington, Nate Palmer, Victor Aiyewa, Thomas Chase
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: Mike Neal, Robert Francois
RESTRICTED FREE AGENT: Jamari Lattimore
Where they stand
Although he didn’t make the Pro Bowl for the first time in his five-year career, outside linebacker Clay Matthews remains the best defensive player on the team. But he missed six games with a thumb injury, including the playoff game against San Francisco, and has been out a total of 10 games over the past two years due to injuries. The Packers are significantly better when Matthews is 100%, if only they could find a way to keep him healthy. They have no such problem with A.J. Hawk, who has missed just two games due to injury in his eight-year career. Hawk is not spectacular but remains steady and assignment sure and shows no signs of giving up his starting job inside. Nick Perry’s two seasons on the outside have been marred by injuries and inconsistency, and he has yet to live up to his first-round draft status. Brad Jones is “just a guy” as the other inside starter.
Kevin Greene’s stunning departure as outside linebackers coach in January to spend more time with his family led coach Mike McCarthy to shake up his staff. Now the inside and outside linebackers will be in the same meeting room and presumably spend more time together on the field in practice. Former inside linebackers coach Winston Moss has received an expanded role and will oversee all players at the position, with help from assistant Scott McCurley. The Packers hope this will build more continuity within the group. Matthews has never had a position coach other than Greene, so his response to the new arrangement will be a key to its success.
Mike Neal showed steady improvement in his transition from the defensive line to outside linebacker. His value and potential remains hard to gauge, but considering his upward arc, it would be a mistake to let him walk away in free agency without at least trying to keep him. Considering their other needs the Packers can’t afford to break the bank on Neal, but a moderate-priced deal with incentives might be enough to convince him to stay. Then again, if some wild-spending team comes along and offers him an over-priced contract, the Packers will be forced to move on. Lattimore is worth bringing back at a modest cost. Young backups Mulumba, Palmer and Barrington have yet to display starting ability, so the Packers should draft one if not two players at the position, with at least one in the first three rounds.