Seventh in a nine-part series of Packers position previews.
GREEN BAY - So what if the Green Bay Packers have four — count ‘em, four — former first-round draft choices at outside linebacker.
The success or failure of their linebacking corps this season rests with the seven inside linebackers, none of whom was selected before the fourth round.
Clay Matthews’ return to the line of scrimmage, the forever-young Julius Peppers, perennially promising Nick Perry and lineman-turned-linebacker Datone Jones give the Packers star power on the outside.
Inside? The modest list of candidates starts with Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez and Sam Barrington.
What the Packers really need is for one of those players to blossom quickly into the next Desmond Bishop. Along with Nick Barnett, he was their best inside linebacker in the last 15 years.
Bishop, a sixth-round pick in 2007, was idling on special teams a month into his fourth season when Barnett blew out his knee. He immediately became a major piece in the Super Bowl defense, signed a fat new contract at year’s end and, together with Matthews, were the top players on defense the following season.
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His career effectively ended in August 2012 with a right hamstring torn completely off the bone. Brad Jones, D.J. Smith, Jamari Lattimore, Nate Palmer and others fell dreadfully short in his stead.
“Desmond grew into a really, really outstanding player,” said Scott McCurley, the assistant linebackers coach who joined the staff in 2007. “The role that he filled that Super Bowl year, we were able to keep that nickel package on the field pretty much all the time.
“He could move. He could hit. He could strike down the middle. Good natural instincts.
“He was a tough guy to replace.”
The end-of-season decision by coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers to get Matthews back where he belongs put the onus on general manager Ted Thompson to plug the void inside.
Among the free agents switching teams were Danny Trevathan (signed with Chicago), Jerrell Freeman (Chicago), James Laurinaitis (New Orleans), Karlos Dansby (Cincinnati), Demario Davis (Cleveland), Daryl Smith (Tampa Bay) and Shea McClellin (New England).
Another inside linebacker, Kiko Alonso, went from Philadelphia to Miami via trade.
Thompson re-signed Carl Bradford from the practice squad, cut Palmer, drafted Martinez in the fourth round and signed rookie free agents Beniquez Brown and Manoa Pikula.
“Nope, he doesn’t like free agency,” a personnel man for an NFC North Division team said this spring. “He wants his own guys. He doesn’t need to do that. He’s already in the playoffs as long as he’s got that quarterback.”
Is there enough talent at inside linebacker?
“I think we have a good core group of guys with some experience, albeit even limited,” said McCurley, who coaches the inside players. “We have the bodies in there that can execute well and make plays when called upon.
“You always want to be as impactful as you can but you’ve got to know your role, do your job, make your calls and be where you need to be. The way we played in the playoffs as a linebacker unit, our best football was at the end of the year.”
Barrington began last season calling the defense, starting on the strong inside in base and playing both nickel and dime. Then he went down in the first half of the first game with a foot injury and hasn’t been back since.
“He had that old-school, inside-linebacker mentality,” McCurley said. “Good size, good strike downhill. You don’t have those true competitive guys like him.”
Palmer replaced Barrington, was pulled late in the second quarter of Game 8 and benched for good after 11 games in favor of Ryan. Palmer, with a 40-yard time of 4.72 seconds, couldn’t cut it in coverage.
It remains to be seen if Barrington, who ran 4.76 out of South Florida, might have lost speed he couldn’t afford to lose after surgery. But Bishop, with a 40 time of 4.77, wasn’t a speed merchant, either.
Ryan (4.65) actually timed a tick faster than Martinez (4.67) but it’s Martinez who is viewed as the player with more range and feel in coverage.
In spring, an NFL personnel director said Martinez had the edge over Ryan in short-area quickness, covering backs man-to-man and carrying tight ends deep.
“Martinez will be able to play the passing game,” the scout said. “Speed is pretty good. Very instinctive.”
An executive in personnel for another team said Ryan was more physical than Martinez but probably wasn’t as athletic.
“Martinez is instinctive but not very strong,” he said. “Doesn’t take on blocks. Most of his tackles are downfield. Plays laterally. He’s not a real physical point-of-attack guy.”
Bishop (6-2, 240) was able to pulverize lead blocks, make punishing tackles and inspire his teammates.
“(Ryan) has such a relentless, attacking mentality,” McCurley said. “With him, it’s how much can he slow it down, be a little bit more productive and not get fooled.
“(Martinez) is very conscientious of technique and I think he’s got enough speed. I think he’s going to fit some (coverage) roles … I like his mentality, but we’ve got to put the pads on and see what happens.”
Undersized Joe Thomas played ahead of both Ryan and Palmer as the dime linebacker. He handled a difficult scheme without glaring issue but was up and down overall.
“An interception off his hands, a forced fumble and he didn’t get the ball, a hit on the quarterback where he was a step slow,” McCurley said. “If he makes those plays this year he’d really roll into a defined role where he can really help a team.”
Regarding the 23-month experiment with Bradford inside, McCurley said: “I can see he feels a little more comfortable. He’s got to go do it.”
Matthews’ second season at inside linebacker was disappointing. He had career highs in missed tackles (12) and coverage blows and ranked a distant last in tackles per snap among the four inside linebackers.
“You took a guy who was playing at an all-pro level and moved him off the ball and had him do something else,” McCurley said. “There’s no question. He did make a sacrifice.”
Neither McCurley nor Capers anticipate any adjustment period for Matthews after 1 ½ years inside.
“He’s excited about being back outside,” Capers said. “Yes, he’s a better player outside. I’m excited to see him out there.”
The fact Matthews turned 30 in May was barely noticed by the staff.
“He’s got good DNA,” Capers said. “His dad and uncle played a long time (19 years), plus he takes care of himself.”
On the other side, look for Perry to relieve Peppers of some early-down wear and tear. When Perry returned for good from a shoulder injury, he had 104 snaps in Games 15-18 compared to Peppers’ 91.
The Packers elected to re-sign Perry (one year, $5 million) and let Mike Neal go.
“You saw the way Nick Perry played in the playoffs,” Capers said. “(Washington’s Trent) Williams is one of the best blocking tackles and he gave him fits that night.
“Nick can set an edge in the run game and he’s got a couple pass-rush moves. There’s always been an injury issue.”
Peppers, 36, remains a physical marvel. With fewer snaps, maybe he can play out his three-year, $26 million contract with a flourish.
“I think he can,” Capers said. “He can rush outside, can rush inside, smart. When you get in the season you can’t place a value on that.”
Late last season, an NFC North personnel man said: “He was OK. He had a pretty good year, not a great year. He’s not great against the run.”
Some personnel people have maintained that Jones as well as Perry would have been better fits playing defensive end in a 4-3. They said Jones lacked both the size and toughness to play base end in a 3-4, and his performance as an inside rusher on passing downs was so-so.
The Packers shifted Jones to a stand-up position for most of the last 10 games and, after reviewing the entire season, decided his production was better from a two-point stance. In turn, he dropped some weight for his new post.
“I thought it was odd when they were standing him up but he did a nice job,” an NFC North personnel executive said. “He gives them some strength on the edge against the run and he’s got nickel rush stuff inside.”
In addition to the four first-round picks, there is remarkable depth with rookie Kyler Fackrell, Jayrone Elliott and former Bronco Lerentee McCray. Fackrell, a third-round pick, quickly impressed Capers with his height (6-5), arm length (33 inches) and serious mien.
“He’ll be a model of consistency,” one NFL executive said in May. “He’s an unassuming really good athlete. He needs to get a little stronger. That’s the key.”
The Packers remain hopeful that Elliott still can be more than a special-teams regular. To do so, he must play with more power.
“I think he’s gotten stronger,” Capers said. “He has a feel for rushing.”
Thompson gave McCray one year at $800,000 ($50,000 signing bonus) in mid-April after the Broncos didn’t give him a qualifying offer. He missed most off the off-season with an undisclosed injury.
“Great kid, loves football,” an NFC scout said of McCray before he went undrafted in 2013. “Limited speed and doesn’t look good working out, but guys like that stick.”
PACKERS BY POSITION: LINEBACKERS
INSIDE LINEBACKERS (7)
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Jake Ryan 6-2½ 240 24 D4-’15 Michigan
Played just 45 snaps in the first 11 games (38 in one game) before taking over for Nate Palmer in Games 12-18. Missed too many tackles (nine) but also paced ILBs in tackles per snap (one every 5.8).
Blake Martinez 6-1½ 237 22 D4-’16 Stanford
Two-year starter at ILB in a 3-4 defense. Finished with 255 tackles (13½ for loss), 6½ sacks and 10 turnover plays. Ran 4.67, vertical jump of 34 inches and score of 27 on the Wonderlic intelligence test.
Sam Barrington 6-1 240 25 D7-’13 South Florida
Beat out Terrell Manning for No. 5 berth in 2013 but never played from scrimmage. Played 470 snaps in ’14 and the first 16 last year before suffering a season-ending foot injury at Soldier Field that required surgery.
Joe Thomas 6-0½ 228 25 FA-’15 South Carolina State
Plucked off the Cowboys’ practice squad Sept. 21 when coaches recognized they needed a dime LB with some speed. Ran 4.71 with vertical jump of 38.
Carl Bradford 6-1 241 23 D4-’14 Arizona State
Has worked at ILB since Aug. 25, 2014 after short-lived trial at OLB. His 4.68 speed and tenacity led to 21½ sacks as edge rusher for Sun Devils. Arms measure just 30½.
Beniquez Brown 6-0½ 238 23 FA-’16 Mississippi State
Started three of 12 games in ’13 and 25 of 26 in 2014-’15 at WLB in a 4-3 defense. Declared a year early for draft. Ran 4.71, vertical jump of just 31. Signing bonus of $5,000.
Manoa Pikula 6-0½ 234 23 FA-’16 Brigham Young
Started 14 of 49 games for Cougars, generally at ILB in a 3-4 defense. Exceptional tester: 40 of 4.56, vertical of 36 1/2, broad jump of 9-8 and 24 reps on the bench press.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (8)
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Clay Matthews 6-3 253 30 D1-’09 Southern California
Ranked as NFL’s 37th-best player entering 2016 by Pro Football Weekly. Was 25th entering 2011, 23rd entering ’12, 18th entering ’13, 21st entering ’14 and 33rd entering ’15.
Julius Peppers 6-6 287 36 FA-’14 North Carolina
Hasn’t missed a game since 2007. Coaches successfully trimmed his per-game snap average from 50.2 to 43.8 last year. Finished with 34 pressures, down from 43½ in 2014, and two takeaway plays, a dramatic dip from 11.
Nick Perry 6-2½ 265 26 D1-’12 Southern California
Improved statistically from 2014 in four categories: pressures (16½), tackles (43), tackle for loss (4½) and missed tackles (three). In March 2012, he had a 4.58 40, 38½ vertical jump, 10-4 broad jump and 35 reps on the bench.
Datone Jones 6-4 275 26 D1-’13 UCLA
Beginning in Game 9, he played more snaps as an OLB (163) than as a DL (149). Pressure totals have risen from 10½ in 2013 to 16 in ’14 to 18½ in ’15.
Jayrone Elliott 6-3 252 24 FA-’14 Toledo
Finished with eight pressures in 174 snaps in 2015 after having three in 54 as a rookie. Ran 4.77 with vertical jump of 31 in March 2014. Long arms (33¾), big hands (10 5/8).
Lerentee McCray 6-2 246 25 FA-’16 Florida
Played 118 snaps from scrimmage and 241 on special teams in 11 regular-season games for champion Broncos last year. Ran 4.80 before the draft in 2013 but wasn’t selected. Had 4½ sacks in 42 college games (17 starts).
Kyler Fackrell 6-5 245 24 D3-’16 Utah State
Ran 4.65 with a 34½ vertical jump, 10-1 broad jump and just 16 reps on the bench. Would have been a four-year starter but blew out his ACL in 2014 opener. Wonderlic of 32.
Reggie Gilbert 6-3 261 23 FA-’16 Arizona
Four-year starter primarily as a DE in a 3-3-5 defense. Posted 14 sacks and 27 tackles for loss. Ran 4.88, vertical jump of 33½, broad jump of 9-6 and 24 reps on the bench.
Acquisition categories: D4 means fourth-round draft choice, FA means free agent.