A deep dive into Packers' depth at outside linebacker
Seventh in a nine-part Packers by Position series.
GREEN BAY - The phrase that hovered over organized team activities and minicamp originated from Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy on June 1. He was asked about his team’s depth at outside linebacker, a position that saw both Julius Peppers and Datone Jones depart during free agency earlier this year, and his answer was met with puzzled glances.
“Feel good about the depth at outside linebacker,” McCarthy said. “This is probably as good (of) depth as we’ve had there in some time. I think you’ll really see some of our guys jump out in training camp as we get the pads on.”
From a purely mathematical standpoint, McCarthy’s assertion left something to be desired. A year ago, the Packers had six outside linebackers who played at least 135 snaps. They were, in decreasing order of playing time, Nick Perry with 606; Clay Matthews with 479; Peppers with 470; Jones with 414; Kyler Fackrell with 176 and Jayrone Elliott with 135.
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Two of those players, Peppers and Jones, exited Green Bay for the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. The only newcomer expected to play significant snaps is rookie Vince Biegel, a fourth-round pick from Wisconsin who underwent foot surgery in May. And even if Biegel played 400 snaps to mimic Peppers or Jones — something that is unlikely to happen — there is still a large piece of the pie leftover and nobody with regular-season experience to fill it.
But McCarthy has done this long enough to understand the ways a coach can communicate with his players through the media. And even if certain individuals refrain from actually reading what’s been written, the entire locker room is aware of the general message thanks to cell phones and social media, something McCarthy discussed with the Green Bay Press-Gazette on a podcast last season.
Thus, the nitty-gritty of McCarthy’s comment was less important than the general theme: In a year when the Packers need major contributions from their young outside linebackers, namely Fackrell and Elliott, the coach issued a vote of confidence knowing his message would find its way back to the players.
“I think the biggest thing is our front two guys being able to stay healthy and I think right now Kyler and Jayrone, we feel good about their ability to go in and play,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “One of the things you’ve seen us do at that position 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.”
You don’t get deeper by losing players like Peppers and Jones.
You don’t get better by discouraging your players, either.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (8)
Clay Matthews (Ht. 6-3 Wt. 253 Age: 30 Acquired: D1-'09 College: Southern California)
With the proliferation of advanced metrics there is no shortage of statistics with which to analyze professional football players. And while none of them can paint a complete picture of an entire season, stats are very useful indicators for particular facets of a player’s game.
When it comes to pass rushers, sacks remain the ultimate prize. Finishing the year as the league leader in sacks is a badge of honor, and rankings are certainly points of pride.
In this regard, the last three years for Matthews are unsightly:
» 2014 — 11 sacks, T-12th overall
» 2015 — 6½ sacks, T-39th
» 2016 — 5 sacks, T-58th
Unrelenting injuries have sapped Matthews’ last two seasons. He played every game in 2015 despite nagging ailments throughout. But he played only 12 games in 2016 when a severely injured shoulder wrecked the last two months of the season and forced him to play more or less one-handed.
Still, general manager Ted Thompson must believe in a resurgence for Matthews, whose five-year, $66 million contract runs through 2018. Otherwise Thompson would have made additional moves to bolster his group of pass rushers during the offseason.
Either way, Matthews needs to play more than 51.4 percent of snaps like he did last year.
“As you guys are well aware it’s a volatile position in what we do,” Matthews said. “Unfortunately injuries are a part of it, and anytime you lose those guys like Julius and Datone, you’re going to take a hit. But you have to be real excited with what Nick was able to do when he strung together, for the most part, a healthy season. And me coming back healthy off the shoulder injury, you have to feel good of the guys who are running with the 1's right now.”
Nick Perry (Ht. 6-2½ Wt. 265 Age: 26 Acquired: D1-'12 College: Southern California)
In many ways, Thompson bet even bigger on Perry by re-signing him to a five-year deal worth $60 million and $18.5 million in guaranteed money.
Perry put together the best season of his life in 2016 after plodding through the first four years of his career. He ranked second among outside linebackers in tackles per snap against the run with one every 10.5, and he led the team in both sacks (11 in the regular season) and pressures (36). He managed only 12½ sacks in the previous four seasons combined.
But even more impressive was his durability, a trait he hadn’t exhibited prior to 2016. Perry nearly doubled his playing time from 351 snaps in 2015 to 606 snaps last season. He missed 2½ games after having surgery on his broken hand but finished the year playing five straight games wearing a massive club. He still tallied three sacks in the final two weeks of the regular season.
The Packers handed him a rewarding contract. They are are counting on him to do it again.
“I think if he can just pick up where he left off,” Capers said. “Nick’s a big, strong guy and showed his ability to rush the passer last year. He’s always been a real physical run player. He’s got good leverage on people and sets a good edge and we like the way Nick played last year. Hopefully he can just take and build on that.”
Kyler Fackrell (Ht. 6-5 Wt. 245 Age: 24 Acquired: D3-'16 College: Utah State)
There are two ways of looking at the 2017 season in regard to Fackrell: 1) He is under significant pressure to perform following the departures of Peppers and Jones 2) There is a massive opportunity for him following the departures of Peppers and Jones.
Regardless of viewpoint, Fackrell is going to get a huge boost in playing time, and the Packers believe their former third-round pick can be a legitimate threat rushing the passer. He registered 6½ pressures in 176 snaps last season by using his speed and long limbs to frustrate quarterbacks.
Strength and conditioning remains an ongoing challenge for Fackrell, who was pushed around in training camp last season and spoke openly about his need to get stronger. McCarthy said the weight room portion of the offseason program would be crucial for Fackrell’s development.
“It was just kind of my body was tired more so than anything,” Fackrell said of his rookie year. “You kind of 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.”
Jaryone Elliott (Ht. 6-3 Wt. 252 Age: 24 Acquired: FA-'14 College: Toledo)
The expectations surrounding Elliott have felt the same for the last two or three seasons in Green Bay. People repeatedly wonder if this is the year when Elliott finds a way to bottle his athleticism and splash-play ability on a consistent basis, carving out a bigger role in the outside linebacker rotation.
As with Fackrell, this is Elliott’s best chance. He has the opportunity to finish as high as third on the depth chart with a strong training camp and exhibition season.
“He’s improved everything,” associate head coach/linebackers Winston Moss said. “I mean, he’s playing the run better. His pass-rush skills are improving. He’s getting experience.”
Vince Biegel (Ht. 6-3 Wt. 245 Age: 23 Acquire: D4-'17 College: Wisconsin)
It took four rounds for the Packers to draft a pass rusher, and Thompson delighted fans across the state by selecting Biegel, the former Badger.
A poorly timed foot injury cost Biegel the entire set of OTAs and minicamp practices, so he will have some catching up to do once training camp starts. But like Elliott and Fackrell, he’ll have an opportunity to finish as high as third on the depth chart.
He should contribute immediately on special teams.
Reggie Gilbert (Ht. 6-3 Wt. 261 Age: 23 Acquired: FA-'16 College: Arizona)
Gilbert signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent last year. He put together a solid training camp and spent the entire season on the Packers’ practice squad before signing another contract to return for 2017. The coaches were impressed with his humble attitude and favorable work ethic.
Johnathan Calvin (Ht. 6-3 Wt. 275 Age: 23 Acquired: FA-'17 College: Mississippi State)
In terms of stature, Calvin is the closest the Packers have to someone like Datone Jones, who was athletic enough to play standing up but could also move inside with his hand on the ground. Calvin had an opportunity to do both at Mississippi State.
Josh Letuligasenoa (Ht. 6-1 Wt. 252 Age: 23 Acquired: FA-'17 College: Cal Poly)
Letuligasenoa found himself in the same boat as cornerback Kevin King, the Packers’ second-round pick. Cal Poly operates under the quarter system, so Letuligasenoa missed nearly all of OTAs and minicamp.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS (7)
Joe Thomas (Ht. 6-0½ Wt. 228 Age: 25 Acquired: FA-'15 College: S. Carolina State)
That Thomas sits atop the inside linebacker depth chart is a credit to his persistence and athleticism. The former undrafted free agent played at the FCS level in college — one step below Division I — and willed his way to a huge role with the Packers.
Thomas played more snaps than any inside or outside linebacker on the roster last season, including 100 percent of snaps in games 9-10-11-13-18-19. He finished with 65.9 percent playing time and appeared in all 19 games.
Once again, the job is there for the taking in 2017.
Jake Ryan (Ht. 6-2½ Wt. 240 Age: 24 Acquired: D4-'15 College: Michigan)
Ryan is the best run-stopper of the Packers’ three primary inside linebackers. He charges the line of scrimmage and seeks out contact, unafraid to stick his head into traffic and make a hit. He had six tackles for loss in the first eight games last season.
But he lacks the kind of speed and athleticism that separate the top-flight inside linebackers around the league. He has been an ineffective blitzer during his first two seasons and can be exposed in coverage.
Blake Martinez (Ht. 6-1½ Wt. 237 Age: 22 Acquired: D4-'16 College: Stanford)
In hindsight, the amount of hype surrounding Martinez during OTAs and minicamp last summer was unfair to such a young player. He grasped the system so quickly that coaches and teammates showered him with praise, but the end result was a regular season that felt deflated.
Martinez played 399 snaps before suffering a sprained MCL that derailed the last two months of his rookie year. But he plays hard and is unafraid to hit. He is smart enough to call the defense and extremely eager to learn. He got lost in the wash at times, especially against play-action passes, and must improve in coverage.
Jordan Tripp (Ht. 6-3 Wt. 234 Age: 26 Acquired: FA-'16 College: Montana)
Tripp signed with the Packers off the street in mid-December. He played 91 snaps on special teams in five games and did not take a single snap from scrimmage. The Packers did not tender him as a restricted free agent, but the two sides agreed to a new deal once free agency began.
Derrick Mathews (Ht. 6-0 Wt. 232 Age: 24 Acquired: FA-'16 College: Houston)
The Packers seem intrigued by Mathews, who began his career on Washington’s practice squad in 2015. He arrived in Green Bay toward the end of training camp last year and did not make the 53-man roster. But the Packers signed him to the practice squad Nov. 23, 2016, and he has been there ever since.
Cody Heiman (Ht. 6-1½ Wt. 235 Age: 23 Acquired: FA-'17 College: Washburn)
Heiman played 8-man football for his entire high school career at Baileyville B&B in Kansas. His next stop was Division II Washburn before signing with the Packers.
David Talley (Ht. 6-1 Wt. 236 Age: 22 Acquired: FA-'17 College: Grand Valley State)
Talley earned a contract after participating in the Packers’ rookie orientation camp in early May. He started 27 games during his final two seasons at Grand Valley State.