Michael Cohen and Aaron Nagler discuss the Packers bringing in former 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks for a visit and what it says about the state of their outside linebacker group. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – In the visitors’ locker room at Mile High Stadium, Reggie Gilbert’s joy was muted. The Green Bay Packers outside linebacker had just recorded a sack for the second straight week, upending Denver Broncos quarterback Paxton Lynch by the shoes.
As the cliché goes, these stacking of successes are good for a player on the 53-man roster bubble.
Yet Gilbert wasn’t gloating as he sat in his locker, sweat-soaked shirt still clinging to his back. He barely smiled. Late in the first quarter, Gilbert knew, he was responsible for Broncos running back C.J. Anderson’s 16-yard touchdown run.
Maybe Anderson would’ve found the end zone had Gilbert filled his assignment, but it would’ve been much harder. At the snap, Gilbert shot three steps upfield from the left edge. Starting right tackle Menelik Watson’s block turned Gilbert’s back to the sideline, opening a huge running lane.
All Anderson saw was open field between him and the goal line.
“I’ve got to be better right there,” Gilbert said, adding he needed to keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage instead of turning.
Such is life on the roster bubble in late August. Fates can change from snap to snap. In the mind of a player fighting for a job, mistakes outweigh splash plays.
The entire outside linebacker depth chart got something more to think about one day after Denver. The Packers will host free-agent outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks on Tuesday, a source said. Whether he’ll sign remains unseen, but the visit is a clear indication the Packers recognize they need to fatten their depth on the edge.
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The Packers mostly used a four-man rotation at outside linebacker last season: Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Julius Peppers and Datone Jones. In theory, they entered camp one month ago hoping to replace half of that rotation with Jayrone Elliott and Kyler Fackrell.
Through three preseason weeks, Elliott and Fackrell have combined for five tackles and zero sacks in 105 snaps. Those stats alone don’t show the position’s fragility entering September. Matthews dropped out after seven snaps Saturday with an undisclosed injury, and Perry later exited with an ankle injury.
“We got a little thin there,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “with the pass rushers going out of the game there fast, with Clay, Nick and Jayrone going out.”
Elliott played through back spasms the past two weeks. Some mornings, he said, he wakes up with his back feeling fine. Other days, like Saturday, his back tightens up.
Elliott tried to play Saturday but had to tap out early in the second quarter. He said Monday his back is day to day, and his availability for Thursday’s preseason finale depends on how it feels in the hours before kickoff.
The Packers also are trying to determine rookie Vince Biegel’s status. The fourth-round pick hasn’t practiced since the second day of rookie orientation in May, when he broke a bone in his foot. With their need for edge depth, the Packers figure to prefer removing Biegel from the physically unable to perform list before the preseason concludes, but that’s only possible if his recovery from foot surgery cooperates.
So even though Brooks’ visit to Green Bay comes in conjunction with an underwhelming month for the position, there’s a simpler, if also more dire, reason. The Packers not only need production on the edge, but also healthy players.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Fackrell said of Brooks’ visit. “I definitely get with Clay and Nick kind of going down with whatever they have, it does kind of just make you realize how quickly a position can become not deep.”
Entering Denver, Matthews said he was impressed with Elliott’s camp. Matthews believes Elliott has established himself as “the first guy in” whenever he or Perry leaves the field.
As for Fackrell, Matthews echoed what outside linebackers coach Winston Moss said earlier in camp, that he needs to play more freely. It’s time, Matthews said, for Fackrell to take more chances rushing the passer, something he has seen Elliott do this preseason.
Fackrell has one tackle in 63 defensive snaps this preseason. He said those stats are deceiving, that he’s playing better than the numbers indicate.
“I think I’ve been there (to make a play) more than a couple of times,” Fackrell said. “I’ve been right there, and a lot of times — like Washington, specifically — they get the ball out really quick. So you can potentially win on a move, and it doesn’t translate into a sack. So I think I just want a little bit more consistency in winning, but I think I’ve been right there. I think it’s just kind of a matter of continuing to work.
“I don’t think that I’ve been playing poorly. I’ve been doing all the things that I’m asked to do, that I do just for myself. I want to kind of just let loose a little bit, and I think that’s where more of the playmaking ability will come from.”
If the Packers sign Brooks, it will create a domino effect down their depth chart.
At age 33, Brooks is well past his prime, but he has had at least six sacks in each of the past six seasons. As a proven veteran, it’s reasonable to expect he would ascend to No. 3 on the outside linebacker depth chart.
Brooks’ presence would dim the urgency for Elliott and Fackrell to provide a large chunk of their pass rush through the fall. It might make Biegel’s stay on the PUP longer, though the rookie needs practice reps. If Biegel started the season on the PUP, he would be unable to practice for six weeks.
For Gilbert, a path to the 53-man roster almost certainly would be shut if the Packers sign Brooks. He would be the seventh player at a position keeping no more than six, making it likely he would spend a second season on the practice squad.
Gilbert has one more exhibition to show what he can do.
“It’s all about opportunities,” McCarthy said. “Hey, this happens every year. In the fourth game, somebody jumps out, takes the rope and then he’ll be here when the 53 is picked. So we’ll see what happens.”