GREEN BAY - When the Green Bay Packers signed Julius Peppers to a three-year, $26 million free-agent deal in March 2014, they didn't just carve out a new position for him in their 3-4 system. They identified him as the model for future outside linebackers playing opposite Clay Matthews.
It may be certifiable to think the Packers could ever find the combination of height, weight and athletic ability of the 6-foot-6, 287-pound Peppers (341/8-inch arm length), even as he enters, at age 36, the 15th season of a certain Hall of Fame career.
But the definition of what the Packers seek on at least one side of their defense has changed and the search for players who can provide at least the basics of what Peppers offers has been on almost since the day the veteran was signed.
Unless they possess the pure pass-rush ability of Matthews, the Packers no longer seem willing to accept anyone who isn't at least 6-4 or doesn't have the arm length of a man that size and has the potential to slug it out at the line of scrimmage in the run game.
"The advantage is when you do have some bigger guys they have the ability to be either an inside or outside pass rusher in pass situations," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said during the team's minicamp. "You see the same thing with Mike Neal, he could rush inside or outside. Julius, can rush inside or outside, Nick Perry.
"Datone (Jones) has been primarily an inside rusher; we've moved him outside. The more flexibility, versatility you have there every year, you get into the season and now you can start trying to match people up."
The pattern continued with the decision to expand permanently Jones' hybrid role and select 6-5, 245-pound Utah State outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell in the third round and 6-6, 296-pound Northwestern defensive end Dean Lowry in the fourth round of the 2016 draft.
Neal won't return, but in addition to Jones, the returning outside linebacker group consists of Peppers, Matthews, Perry and Jayrone Elliott. The Packers also signed street free agent Lerentee McCray, a more traditionally sized outside pass rusher (6-2, 246) who would compete for time behind Matthews.
In the early years of the Capers defense, the Packers mostly took their chances with lesser-sized outside linebackers such as Erik Walden (6-2, 250), Brad Jones (6-3, 242), Dezman Moses (6-2, 249), Jamari Lattimore (6-2, 229), Ricky Elmore (6-2, 255), Nate Palmer (6-2, 248) and Carl Bradford (6-1, 248).
The Packers were looking for edge rushers to complement Matthews and they generally struck out.
It wasn't until they redefined Neal's role in '13 and signed Peppers that they began actively seeking hybrid defensive line/linebackers who they identify as "elephant" body types. Understanding that there are only so many 6-3, 255-pound sack artists like Matthews, Von Miller, Khalil Mack and Justin Houston, they focused on players who offer versatility.
"If you're going to take a guy who's a great rusher, you're going to try to keep him rushing all the time," Capers said. "But all of a sudden everybody designs all the protections for that guy. When he's dropping out of there and somebody else is coming, that creates some problems."
With Peppers playing both as a defensive lineman and an outside linebacker and Matthews playing inside on first and second down and outside on third down, the Packers ranked third in the NFL in sack percentage, taking the quarterback down on 7.54% of all pass attempts.
The plan this year is to plant Matthews outside and move him around as a function of strategy instead of necessity. Who plays opposite him — or in place of him when he lines up inside — will vary, which is exactly how Capers wants it.
Having Jones play outside, something he did frequently at UCLA and at times with the Packers, essentially fills Neal's absence. But it also gives Jones a chance to audition as the next Peppers, whose play hasn't shown any signs of falling off but presumably would be better the fewer snaps he plays.
The 6-4 Jones weighs about the same as Peppers, has 32¾-inch arms and can play with power. The 2013 first-round pick is the closest thing physically the Packers have to Peppers, but Jones isn't nearly as quick, agile or athletically gifted.
However, if he can learn to play in space, Capers can use him like he does Peppers, which means moving him inside and out to take advantage of what might be the best matchup. When he's out on the edge, he has a chance to use his strength against a smaller pass protector.
"He plays more of a power game out there," Capers said. "Because of his size and his strength, against backs and tight ends, he's a pretty good matchup for those guys. You're going to limit his pass (coverage) stuff, make it fairly simple and not put him out in space a lot."
Jones will need to lose some weight to carry out the assignment, but the Packers don't want him thinning down to 265 the way Neal did.
Perry probably will work a lot behind Matthews, but at 6-3, 265 pounds with 33-inch arms, he also has the potential to work a hybrid position where he lines up outside, but can shift inside and not be completely overmatched against a 320-pound offensive guard.
When Jones or Perry are able to put their hands down, it gives Capers the ability to run stunts that allow Matthews, Peppers and even Mike Daniels one-on-ones coming up the middle.
"We're always looking at our best combinations...," Capers said.
Added Jones, "We've got guys in the outside linebacker room who have all kinds of body types. Julius Peppers is a 6-7, 290 guy, you've got Jayrone Elliott, you have me and Nick, Clay. We all have different body types. But we all have the motor to get to the quarterback."
The 6-3, 255-pound Elliott is another player the Packers hope can develop into more than just an outside rusher. Only Peppers has longer arms than Elliott's 33¾ inches, and if the third-year pro can retain the muscle he put on during the off-season, he's got a better chance of staying on the field.
Last year, he had three sacks and an interception in just 174 snaps, so he may have something to add to the pass rush. The same may be true of Fackrell, who may have the frame to put on another 10 pounds. His length and agility will allow him to handle coverage duties better than someone like Jones, but his power will be limited.
"I think they're both athletic guys," Capers said. "You like their length. And I think they're both good athletes. We'll have to wait until we get into preseason games, get the pads on and see how it works itself out. In my mind, it starts with work ethic and both of them have a real good work ethic."
In describing himself, Fackrell started the conversation with speed.
"Speed kills and I always try and win with speed first. But then I think I need to be able to incorporate those power moves and a counter move and that's where upper body strength and gaining a little bit of weight is going to help."
Lowry will start out at defensive end and while his arm length is only 31 inches, he's as tall as Peppers and the Packers have not ruled out him being an "elephant" somewhere down the line.
It's too important of a position not to give him a shot.
"We like the taller, longer-levered guys," Capers said. "I think the length part of it helps with the pass rush, having leverage. If you think about what they're rushing against, they're going against big offensive tackles that are tall and long, long arms. It helps them where guys can't get into them and tie them down."
REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
The hybrid linebackers who should see significant playing time this season for the Packers:
Name, height, weight, arm length
Julius Peppers, 6-6, 287, 341/8
Clay Matthews, 6-3, 255, 32¼
Datone Jones, 6-4, 289, 32¾
Nick Perry, 6-3, 265, 33
Jayrone Elliott, 6-3, 255, 33¾
Kyler Fackrell, 6-5, 245, 33¼
Dean Lowry, 6-6, 296, 31