GREEN BAY - The medical staff for the Green Bay Packers erred on the side of caution as organized team activities began this week. The Packers opted to play it safe — a popular phrase inside the walls of Lambeau Field with the dozen or so players recovering from either nagging or serious injuries — and the result was a watered-down product during Tuesday’s public practice at Ray Nitschke Field.
During team reps, when the players went through faux two-minute drills in helmets and shorts, there were moments when Kyler Fackrell and Vince Biegel lined up as the starting outside linebackers. Veterans Clay Matthews (offseason knee surgery) and Nick Perry (ankle) were rested for precautionary reasons, and suddenly the absence of proven backups became startlingly clear.
“You look at the depth at the outside linebacker position and it’s not that great,” Matthews said. “That’s not a slight to the guys who are behind Nick and myself, but you look around the league, a lot of times they’re rotating in pass rushers. You can look a couple years ago when we had Mike Neal and Julius (Peppers) here, Datone (Jones) as well. We had a pretty good rotation.”
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The aforementioned trio has combined for 183½ sacks and counting in more than 25 seasons of professional football, with Peppers, the 38-year-old wonder, and Jones, a former first-round pick, still playing for the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys, respectively.
The replacement trio, which Tuesday consisted of Fackrell, Biegel and Reggie Gilbert, has combined for 6 sacks in 40 games with only a glimmer of consequential promise. Rookie seventh-round pick Kendall Donnerson, who played for Southeast Missouri State in the Football Championship Subdivision, offered a fourth option as a height-weight-speed prospect whose fortunes with the Packers could change entirely once pads are donned.
“I’m happy with the picks they made,” Matthews said of this year’s draft class, which featured cornerback Jaire Alexander in the first round, cornerback Josh Jackson in the second and inside linebacker Oren Burks in the third, among other defensive players. “And at the same time, it does show, you know, their confidence in Nick and myself, as well as the guys we have. At some time I’m sure (the depth at outside linebacker) will be addressed, but for the time being the guys we have here are the guys who have to hold up their end of the bargain.”
Betting big on Matthews and Perry comes with significant risk given the injury history of both players. Matthews, 32, has missed six games in the last two seasons as nagging muscle injuries routinely chipped away at his playing time. He led the outside linebackers in snaps last season with 659 in 14 games, but his 62.4 percent playing time is less than ideal for an elite rusher. This fall represents the final season on a five-year, $66 million extension Matthews signed in 2013.
Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Perry has also missed six games the last two seasons as his hands and fingers continue succumbing to his violent play style at the line of scrimmage. Perry has never played more than 58 percent of snaps since entering the league as a first-round pick in 2012. He signed a five-year, $59 million contract extension in March 2017 and followed up with 7 sacks in 12 games last season.
“You just can’t line up with two premier pass rushers and think they’re going to play 80 percent of the snaps,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the annual league meetings in March. “It’s such a demanding position, you know? Some people believe that you have 23 good pass rushes in you a game, some may say 25. You’ve got to look at the workload that those positions bring, particularly when you’re playing at 270 (pounds) and you’re rushing against 310 and 320 all day, too. That’s part of that rotation of that pass rush group. We need to have more people available to do it, but I’d like to have a much healthier rotation than what we’ve had.”
After the draft, McCarthy said the player acquisition phase of building the 90-man roster will continue through the spring and summer, during which time veterans are often released to create cap room or facilitate the growth of draft picks. He wants more competition at the outside linebacker position to lessen the burden on Matthews and Perry.
Thus far, however, the Packers still haven’t bolstered their pass-rushing ranks. Matthews used the first public OTA to let the media know it.