Seventh in a series of nine position previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' 2018 training camp.
GREEN BAY – In an otherwise busy offseason, perhaps the biggest surprise of the past six months is what new Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t do with his team’s edge rush.
Gutekunst executed his first major trade as GM. He signed two top free agents on the open market and released one of the Packers' most popular players. In the draft, he traded not once, but twice in the first round.
None of the activity addressed the most glaring need on the Packers' roster. If you’re searching for roadblocks keeping this annual contender from reaching Super Bowl LIII, start with the Packers' thin outside linebacker depth chart. The only significant addition Gutekunst gave the edge rush didn’t come until the draft’s seventh round, the Packers' final pick of 11, when he selected Southeast Missouri State’s Kendall Donnerson.
“You look at the depth at the outside linebacker position,” Clay Matthews said after the draft, “and it’s not that great. That’s not a slight to the guys who are behind Nick (Perry) and myself, but you look around the league, a lot of times they’re rotating in pass rushers.”
A brief look at the linebacker position heading into 2018. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
The Packers are equipped to have a solid interior pass rush, but there’s no overstating the importance of productive outside linebackers in the NFL. One of the pressing areas of focus once training camp commences will be developing the edge attack.
Roster locks: Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Blake Martinez, Oren Burks.
Good bets: Vince Biegel, Reggie Gilbert, Jake Ryan.
On the bubble: Kyler Fackrell, Chris Odom, Kendall Donnerson.
Long shots: Ahmad Thomas, Greer Martini, Parris Bennett, Naashon Hughes, CJ Johnson, Marcus Porter.
Biggest offseason move
The Packers surprisingly stood pat for the second straight season instead of trying to bolster their depth. Outside linebacker is noticeably thin, but the Packers' inside linebacker position doesn’t go too deep either. The biggest offseason acquisition at either spot was third-rounder Oren Burks, a long, lean and athletic prospect the Packers likely will play in their preferred sub-packages as soon as possible.
Four names: Vince Biegel, Reggie Gilbert, Kyler Fackrell, Chris Odom. In an ideal world, they would round out the Packers' outside linebacker depth chart. But each comes with their own concerns. Biegel’s rookie season was wasted with a Jones fracture on the second day of rookie orientation in 2017. He started the season on the physically unable to perform list, missing his entire first training camp and not making his debut until November. Gilbert, formerly undrafted out of Arizona, was the most promising of the trio last season, but it took him almost two full seasons on the practice squad before he finally got a chance. Fackrell has a third-round pedigree, but his play has been a disappointment with just five sacks in his two seasons. Odom, a natural defensive lineman, was claimed off waivers at the end of training camp last year, but he spent the entire season learning how to transition to outside linebacker while costing the Packers a spot on their 53. If two of the four pan out, the Packers might have something of an edge rush. If not, they risk once again putting too much pressure on their top two.
Keep an eye on
After tying for the NFL lead in tackles last season, Blake Martinez still has plenty of work to do for his encore. Martinez has the potential to be a fixture in the middle of the Packers' defense for years to come, bringing the nose for the football he showed in college to the NFL. To take the next step as a player, he’ll need to improve in two areas: forcing more turnovers and covering more consistently. Martinez recovered two fumbles and had an interception last season, but he only forced one fumble in 144 tackles. Martinez's pass coverage also needs to take a step, especially against play action. If he can continue his development, Martinez’s playmaking could end the Packers' long search for answers at inside linebacker.
Can Clay Matthews and Nick Perry stay healthy? Between them, the veteran edge rushers have two of the team’s biggest contracts, combining to count more than $22 million against this year’s cap. Like any team, the Packers need their best players to produce the most, but Matthews and Perry can only do that when they’re on the field. With a thin depth chart last season, it was clear the Packers needed Matthews and Perry to stay healthy. Instead, Matthews missed two games with injury, Perry missed four and neither exceeded 65 percent of the defensive snaps. Perry played only 51 percent of snaps, while Matthews was on the field 62 percent of the time. Given the Packers are once again faced with minimal depth, they’ll need more snaps — and with the playing time, production — this fall.
Oren Burks will lead all Packers rookies in snaps. That won’t be easy, given the Packers' top two picks were cornerbacks, and corners rarely leave the field. But with veterans Tramon Williams and Davon House joining Kevin King, the Packers can afford to be more patient with the development of their young corners. They have much less depth at inside linebacker, and in Burks they drafted potentially a perfect piece for their nickel and dime packages. At 6-3, 233 pounds with a 4.59 40, Burks’ athleticism jumps off the chart. There’s a reason he wasn’t drafted until pick No. 88. Burks will face a learning curve like any rookie, but the Vanderbilt graduate has the football chops to handle it. Pair the former safety in the nickel package with Martinez, a tackle machine who struggles in pass coverage, and the Packers could have an ideal fit.