Michael Cohen and Ryan Wood discuss a fight at Packers practice on Thursday and the outlook at outside linebacker. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – Patience came naturally in the past. Since the day Jayrone Elliott arrived, an undrafted rookie from a small college program, he was buried at a position with a first-round pedigree.
Clay Matthews will become the Green Bay Packers' official sacks leader this fall. Julius Peppers’ career will end in the Hall of Fame. Nick Perry was drafted 28th overall out of USC in 2012. A year later, Datone Jones was drafted 26th out of UCLA.
In 2016, no other position on the Packers' roster had four first-round picks.
For an outside linebacker from Toledo, the forest of first-rounders was too thick to chop down. Elliott was expected to just fill a role on special teams, keep an NFL job.
Circumstances have changed, and expectations have increased. Peppers and Jones are gone. In their absence, the Packers have an abundance of snaps for the taking.
Elliott sat at his locker Thursday after the Packers' open organized team activities session, no longer a 22-year-old kid on a rookie contract. He knows this offseason will be his best chance to secure a role on defense. It also might be his last chance.
“The pressure is on,” Elliott said, “to see if I can really compete at this level. I’m excited for the challenge, and looking forward to going out there and trying to prove to myself and try to do this. Now, I’m just trying to be more vocal than usual to these younger guys. Those guys come and ask me a bunch of questions, and I try to take advantage of that role as well.
“But also it’s time for me to make a name for myself.”
Outside linebacker won’t be one of the hottest position battles when the Packers open training camp. A year after the Packers kept six on their initial 53-man roster, the position lacks bodies. It isn’t overpopulated like receiver. Not revamped with rookies like running back. Not evolving within defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme like inside linebacker.
At outside linebacker, the depth chart should be pretty well set. The roles clearly defined on paper. That doesn’t mean it’s deep.
If not a true competition for jobs, outside linebacker will be perhaps the most important proving grounds on the Packers' roster this summer. Between Peppers and Jones, the defense lost 1,132 snaps from last season. The Packers replaced their veteran duo with Elliott and 2016 third-rounder Kyler Fackrell, who combined to play 296 snaps.
Add it up, and the Packers seem to be relying on Matthews and Perry to stay healthy simultaneously, a lot to ask given their history. They’ve shared a locker room for five seasons now. Perry never has played all 16 games. In that time, Matthews only did it twice – both in seasons when most of his snaps came at inside linebacker.
The Packers are comfortable with Matthews and Perry as their top pass-rush duo. Uncertainty starts if either sustains a serious injury. Even in the unlikely scenario both veterans are available all 16 games, Elliott and Fackrell should see their snaps increase significantly this fall.
“One of the things you’ve seen us do at that position,” Capers said, “is rotate guys a lot and try to keep guys fresh in terms of rushing the passer. I think we’ve got pretty good depth at that position, to tell you the truth. We’ve been thinner than what we are now.”
Coach Mike McCarthy went even further Thursday, saying the Packers' outside linebacker depth “is probably as good as depth as we’ve had there in some time,” hard to believe considering the Packers lost a Hall of Fame pass rusher this spring.
It’s difficult to evaluate outside linebackers – a position emphasizing physicality – until training camp opens because of contact limitations during organized team activities.
McCarthy said stressing fundamentals can help maximize development in OTAs, even without pads. But work in the weight room might be most valuable this time of year.
“These guys have a chance to put on eight to 10 pounds in muscle mass,” McCarthy said, “and grow and develop as an NFL player.”
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing for inexperienced players to step into more snaps. Everyone starts somewhere. Fackrell, especially, is a prime candidate to have a breakout season.
A year ago, Fackrell wasn’t strong enough to hold the edge, one of the primary responsibilities for any outside linebacker. He was exhausted by season’s end, and also hampered by an injured hamstring.
“My body was tired more so than anything,” Fackrell said. “You have a little fat around your stomach at the end of the season. You feel like your arms are all scrawny. So to kind of get back in the weight room and hit it hard, it does a lot for your confidence and being able to feel good.
“I felt really weak, and I was. But I kind of got that corrected, and I feel a lot better now than I did last year at this time.”
McCarthy stresses the importance of second-year players maximizing their first full offseason in the NFL. It’s perhaps the most valuable developmental period in a player’s career.
Fackrell spent his first spring as a pro working out in Provo, Utah. He said he lifted heavy weight more than last offseason, returning to the approach he used in college. He gained 10 pounds in muscle – up to 253 – without losing speed.
Fackrell expects the additional bulk to help this fall.
“I think the run game is going to be big,” he said, “but I also think it’s going to help in the pass rush as long as I can keep the same speed.”
Elliott’s strength has been a problem in the past, but his weight never dipped as low as Fackrell’s last season. When training camp opens, he expects to be around 255. That’s when he’ll get a chance to show he deserves a larger role on defense.
Elliott wants to enter training camp ready. So he’ll work on his pad level this spring, focus on having active hands, flipping his hips. On Thursday, he lined up as an interior rusher in team drills, something Peppers and Jones did last season.
With only non-contact reps, Elliott knows the proving ground awaits.
“It’s kind of hard to judge with no pads on,” Elliott said, “but you can still get some momentum heading into camp. Put your best foot forward in OTAs, and give yourself some confidence heading into camp. That’s when the real game starts.”