The need was obvious for the Green Bay Packers at inside linebacker.
Maybe too obvious.
Last season, the situation deteriorated to the point that coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers came together at the bye week and agreed to shift All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews inside in an effort to save the defense’s season.
The Packers instantly transformed into one of the NFL’s top units during the second half of the season. Still, the common belief was Matthews would move back to his natural position after the season and the rebuilding inside would commence in the offseason.
Free agency came and went without any substantial additions. Once the Packers passed on their first three opportunities to address the position in the NFL draft, their intentions became clear.
Matthews was going to continue pulling double-duty.
“Clay’s going to be I think playing a lot of different spots,” Capers said. “We liked the way he finished up the season. We thought he made a big impact on our defense. We were still able to involve him rushing the passer. So that’s going to be a fluid state. He has the ability to play inside and outside and wherever our greatest need is at that point in time is probably where Clay will be.”
You can’t argue with the production. Rotating between the outside and inside spots, Matthews recorded 42 tackles and 8½ sacks in the final eight games of the regular season to rebound from his slow start (19 tackles and 2½ sacks in first eight).
The defense halved its rushing yards allowed from 153.5 the first half of the season to 86.3 down the stretch. The Packers climbed to 15th in total defense after limiting Tampa Bay to a mere 109 yards in Week 16.
How much did Matthews mean to the interior? The defense fell apart at the seams when he was sidelined on Seattle’s go-ahead drive late in the NFC title game, which the Seahawks went on to win 28-22 in overtime.
The Packers overhauled the position in the offseason by cutting veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, and not re-signing top reserve Jamari Lattimore. They eventually drafted Michigan’s Jake Ryan in the fourth round, but it was Matthews who was lining up next to Sam Barrington at the start of organized team activities.
There were rumblings this offseason that Matthews would prefer to stay stationed outside, but McCarthy and Capers swear everything is copacetic. Matthews was rotating at both positions throughout the offseason program.
“I think Clay likes the challenge, and he knows the importance of him being able to play both places,” Capers said. “And based off of injury, he could be doing that. Next year from one week to the next, he could be lined up outside, he could be lined up inside. What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to see how some of the guys go around him.”
The Packers have Julius Peppers to thank for being able to move Matthews around. The eight-time Pro Bowler was brought in last offseason to give the defense the complementary outside rusher it lacked in years past opposite Matthews.
Peppers, who turned 35 in January, fit right in despite playing in a 3-4 defense for the first time in his 13 NFL seasons. He started all 18 games (including playoffs) and finished the regular season with 44 tackles, seven sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions returned for a touchdown.
He took some plays off, but always seemed to be there in the critical moments of games, including his forced fumble of DeMarco Murray in the divisional playoffs against Dallas. The Packers are banking on a repeat performance from Peppers.
This offseason, they didn’t blink at the proposition of paying the $9.5 million his contract calls for.
“I didn’t know (what was going to happen) last year coming in, but he had a big impact,” Capers said. “He was by far the best guy we’ve had come in and play on the other side since we’ve been here. We moved him around, he’s smart, certainly didn’t play like a 34-year-old guy. He still has great flexibility and he’s a rare athlete for a guy that size.”
The competition for outside jobs behind Peppers and Matthews will be one of the biggest storylines in camp. Their primary backups, Nick Perry and Mike Neal, missed the entire offseason program. Their absence dispersed ample reps to Jayrone Elliott, Adrian Hubbard and Andy Mulumba, who’s returning from a torn ACL.
Perry and Neal face critical seasons. Both have injury histories and will be unrestricted free agents after the 2015 season. Neal’s move to outside linebacker in 2013 likely saved his career. He has 80 tackles and 9½ sacks over the past two seasons after recording 17 and 4½ his first three seasons combined.
Neal hasn’t missed a game in two years, but gritted through a lingering abdominal injury for most of last season. Likewise, Perry played through a significant shoulder injury that required surgery after the season.
Coaches and teammates laud the former first-round pick for his toughness, but the Packers declined his fifth-year option this offseason. Once cleared, Perry will need to show he can stay healthy and contribute at a high level, especially when pegged to replace Matthews outside in packages.
“You can never had enough good pass rushers,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “We’re a multiple defense, and I think as long as we have Peppers and Neal and Perry and the interior D-line and Clay, Sam and whoever is in there and however we decide to use them, I think that just makes us a better defense.”
Barrington was a pleasant surprise last season. The former seventh-round pick played only one defensive snap as a rookie and missed two games with a hamstring injury before he was called upon to replace Jamari Lattimore in Week 7 against Carolina.
It wasn’t until the Packers benched Hawk that Barrington’s reps really shot up late last season (43.8 defensive snaps per game in December). He brought a hard-nosed and fearless mentality teammates loved. By the end of the season, Barrington was playing all three downs.
“I have to give him a lot of credit,” Moss said. “He took a big step and in taking that big step, he’s given himself the opportunity to really take control of this defense as far as being a leader.”
Converted linebackers Carl Bradford and Nate Palmer permanently joined the inside linebackers room this offseason. They’ll compete with Ryan, practice-squad holdover Joe Thomas, IFL star Josh Francis and undrafted rookie Tavarus Dantzler for reserve roles.
The fourth-round pick stayed on the roster the rest of the season, but was a clean scratch for all 18 games (including playoffs). After a full offseason learning the position, Bradford and Palmer are hoping to follow a series of other veterans who successfully made the switch in Green Bay.
“Each person is different,” Moss said. “What we’re asking those guys to do, we’re expecting them to do to the best of their ability. Work hard, contribute when we ask them to and see how we fit in. If they end up being a guy that can help us when it gets to the season, those are the guys that play.”
Ryan looks the linebacker part and possesses budding leadership qualities as a two-time captain at Michigan. He tore his ACL during spring football in 2013, but returned to the field in Week 6. Many scouts believed his grit and toughness make up for whatever he lacks in natural athleticism.
On the outside, Mulumba is back from the torn ACL that ended his second NFL season. He and last year’s camp darling, Elliott, will look to turn back challenges from practice-squad returnee Hubbard, and undrafted rookies James Vaughters and Jermauria Rasco.
An early entry from Alabama a year ago, Hubbard is the only player on the roster on eye level with Peppers. He spent a majority of his offseason in Green Bay and impressed coaches with his performance during OTAs and minicamp.
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