Clay Matthews' move solidified defense

This is Part 7 of a 10-part series grading Packers players and coaches. Today, we rate the linebackers.

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Linebacker Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers walks out to the field prior to playing the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Dec. 3, 2015 in Detroit.

Clay Matthews never claimed to be an inside linebacker.

If the now six-time Pro Bowler had his druthers, he probably would have been back outside rather than continuing his residency in the middle of the Green Bay Packers’ defense.

Outside isn’t where the team needed him, however. Not this season, anyway.

With the shelves stocked with edge rushers, Matthews stayed inside on a regular basis. His fate was pretty much sealed when the first two days of the NFL draft passed with only two rookie cornerbacks and a receiver to show for it.

Matthews made the most of it. After working inside during the second half of the 2014 season, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound linebacker dove headfirst into the playbook during the offseason program. Once the season started, he even picked up a communication helmet and helped relay calls on defense.

Grading the 2015 Packers by position

It led to probably the most challenging season of Matthews’ NFL career. His coverage responsibilities increased, while his sack totals dipped from 11 to 6½. Still, his five at inside linebacker were second only to Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier, according to Pro Football Focus.

Matthews’ value was reflected more in the defense’s statistics than his own. The Packers finished sixth in points allowed and 15th in total yards, their best totals since winning the Super Bowl in 2010. After the Packers lost Sam Barrington to a foot injury in the opener, who’s to say what would have happened if Matthews would’ve gone down at any point?

Despite Matthews being voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time as an inside linebacker, Packers coach Mike McCarthy says it’s his goal for him to play outside linebacker again in 2016. The next few months will determine whether general manager Ted Thompson falls in line with that thinking.

The Packers again have needs at several positions, including both linebacker spots. Like 2014, who the team re-signs and how it proceeds in the draft likely will go a long way in determining what Matthews’ job responsibilities are next season.

“There will be a lot of variables going into that — who we have, who’s going to be available and all those kinds of things,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said at the end of the season. “I thought Clay did an outstanding job for us, moving in there and playing full-time.”

2015 Packers season in review

Clay Matthews

His 1,016 defensive snaps (97.5 percent) were second only to safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Matthews didn’t gripe about playing inside and didn’t balk at accepting more responsibility after Sam Barrington’s season-ending foot injury. Finished the year with 66 tackles (13 for a loss), 6½ sacks and a 42-yard interception in the opener against Chicago. His 19 quarterback hits led the defense. Matthews’ sideline-to-sideline speed was key to the Packers handling the run better. His athleticism and explosiveness allowed him to cover up whatever he lacked in technique and footwork. Dropped into coverage more than any other time in his NFL career and was adequate. Missed a career-high 17 tackles, though that’s to be expected given the nature of the position and his increased playing time. Was hampered during the second half of the season by a sprained ankle he sustained in Denver. Went seven games without a sack, the longest skid of his seven-year career, and then went back-to-back games against Oakland and Arizona without a tackle. Probably made a few business decisions throughout the course of the year, but just his presence played a big role in the defense’s overall performance.

Grade: B-plus.

McCarthy wants Clay Matthews playing OLB

Julius Peppers

A durable, reliable veteran who has played in more consecutive games (135) than the length of most NFL players’ entire careers. The Packers did a better job handling his reps (693 snaps, 66.3 percent) than in 2014 (809, 73.9 percent), and the 35-year-old linebacker rewarded them with a team-high 10½ sacks, 16 quarterback hits and nine tackles for a loss. Missed his first practice as a member of the Packers, but it was based on McCarthy’s decision during a short week. While his sacks were up, the rest of his numbers mostly decreased from his first season in Capers’ defense: 44 tackles to 37, 11 passes defensed to zero, and four forced fumbles to two. Setting the edge against the run probablyhas been the trickiest thing for Peppers to master in the 3-4 defense. A big component of the Packers’ success in the red zone with Capers often dropping Peppers into coverage during three-man rush situations. As has been the case throughout his career, Peppers’ engine doesn’t run hot on every down. Peppers doesn’t speak often, but his voice carries a lot of weight with his peers. He’ll earn $7 million if he returns for a 14th NFL season.

Grade: B.

Mike Neal

Neal played more snaps (730) than any of the Packers’ elephant rushers. Hasn’t missed a game in three years after he and the coaching staff decided his body couldn’t hold up to being a 305-pound defensive end. Dropped more than 40 pounds and since has completed the transformation to outside linebacker. A high-effort rusher who stays around the football. He finished with the second-most tackles for a loss (10) and fourth-most hits (11) on the defense. Also scored a rare sack as an inside rusher in the dime sub-package against Washington. Plays with discipline (only one penalty). Neal didn’t get home often despite playing as much as he did. His four sacks on 434 pass-rush opportunities rank among the fewest for 3-4 NFL outside linebackers. His 10 missed tackles were the third-most on the defense, according to Pro Football Focus. While Neal has stayed on the field, he has dealt with a series of core muscle injuries. An unrestricted free agent who turns 29 in June.

Grade: C-plus.

Nick Perry

Injuries have underscored Perry’s NFL career in missing 18 of a possible 64 regular-season games. Question his durability, but not his toughness. Perry has played through a broken foot, broken fingers and a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery after last season. He produces when healthy. Started this season on a tear (3½ sacks in a three-game stretch), but went nine games without a sack after spraining the AC joint in his shoulder against San Diego. While rigid in space, Perry might set the edge better than any other outside linebacker on the roster. Came alive in the playoffs with 2½ sacks against Washington’s Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams and then obliterated Carson Palmer on a strip-sack in Arizona. Finished the regular season with 31 tackles (seven for a loss) on 349 defensive snaps in 14 regular-season games. A 4-3 defensive end at USC, Perry will get to decide his future this offseason after the Packers declined their fifth-year option on the 2012 first-round pick last spring.

Grade: C.

Jake Ryan

Proved to be an upgrade over Nate Palmer when the Packers finally made a permanent switch to Ryan against Dallas. Might have landed the job earlier if it hadn’t been for a hamstring injury he suffered against Kansas City in Week 3. A naturally trained linebacker, Ryan demonstrated better instincts and footwork than Palmer and sometimes even Matthews. Although he’s not nearly as explosive as his Pro Bowl teammate, Ryan (6-foot-2, 240) plays physical and doesn’t take many false steps. Averaged 7.5 tackles in the six games in which he played at least 30 snaps. With a 4.65-second time in the 40-yard dash, Ryan timed faster than Palmer or Joe Thomas, but also had his problems in coverage. Arizona running back David Johnson produced 36 yards after catch on his two receptions against Ryan’s coverage in Week 15. As many scouts predicted before the draft, Ryan had difficulty disengaging once blocked. Finished with six missed tackles on 260 defensive snaps. After training to impress scouts and general managers last year, Ryan should be able to pinpoint his shortcomings this offseason in hopes of competing for the starting job next season.

Grade: C.

Jayrone Elliott

A camp darling in each of his first two NFL seasons, Elliott saw his snaps increase on defense (173) en route to finishing with 24 tackles and three sacks on only 88 pass-rush opportunities, according to Pro Football Focus. A lengthy rusher, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound linebacker made a significant impact in Week 2 against Seattle with his first career interception and forced fumble. Flashed playmaking ability with his speed, but was raw with the nuances of the position and setting an edge. Can be neutralized if he fails to beat the tackle with his quickness. Fell behind converted end Datone Jones on the depth chart midseason. Battled a quad injury for most of the season before it finally sidelined him for three weeks near the end. Finished third on special teams with 11 coverage tackles on 324 regular-season snaps.

Grade: C-minus.

Joe Thomas

Signed onto Dallas’ practice squad shortly after the Packers passed on him in final cuts. In need of a dime linebacker with Barrington out, the Packers signed him to the active roster and immediately played him in Week 3 against Kansas City. His tenacity has lived up to a “tackling machine” tag that was placed on him coming out of South Carolina State. His size (6-foot, 227) can be problematic at times. He usually concedes the extra yard in collisions in the open field and isn’t a large target to throw over in coverage. Not quick enough to recover when he’s late reacting to a play. Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer targeted his coverage for two third-down conversions during the Cardinals’ go-ahead series in the divisional playoff game. He had 26 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble on 249 regular-snap snaps.

Grade: D.

Nate Palmer

No worse for wear after a torn medial collateral ligament landed him on injured reserve at the end of training camp in 2014. Palmer, limited in camp by a club on his hand, made a smoother transition to inside linebacker than 2014 fourth-round pick Carl Bradford to earn a spot back on the 53-man roster. Inserted into a starting role in Week 2 when Barrington was lost for the season. A bit faster than Barrington, but not nearly as decisive against the run. Had a tendency to over-pursue and often was flat-footed in the open field. It led to him finishing fourth on the defense with nine missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Issues in coverage quickly took him out of the dime-linebacker conversation. He was benched in favor of the rookie Ryan in Carolina before giving up the job for good in Week 13 against Dallas. Tied for second on the defense with 68 combined tackles in 534 defensive snaps (51.2 percent).

Grade: D.

Andy Mulumba

Returned in time for the offseason program after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in September 2014. Played well enough in the preseason to earn a spot on the 53-man roster for the third consecutive season, but saw only 42 defensive snaps among the crowd at outside linebacker. Since he wasn’t a core special-teams player, Mulumba was a clean scratch in the 10 weeks coming out of the bye week. Didn’t suffer any setbacks with the knee.

Grade: Incomplete.

Sam Barrington

Quickly rose up the depth chart in 2014 because he was better against the run than A.J. Hawk and more responsible in coverage than Brad Jones. The former seventh-round pick was playing every down by the NFC championship game. Barrington was expected to have a large role in the defense before sustaining a season-ending foot injury in the opener against Chicago. A fearless thumper whom defensive lineman Mike Daniels credited for bringing attitude to the defense in 2014. He isn’t an ideal fit as the dime linebacker, but handled the role early when no other candidates emerged in camp. His limitations in coverage were exposed in the preseason, particularly against Philadelphia’s Darren Sproles. A respected voice in the locker room, Barrington was the Packers’ nomination for the NFL’s man of the year award.

Grade: Incomplete. and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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