Despite success, Matthews' future not at inside LB
There's not much to debate on Clay Matthews' move to inside linebacker.
The Green Bay Packers have improved in a big way since Matthews moved to his new position five weeks ago, not withstanding Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones eviscerating them in the second half Monday night.
In short, the move has improved the Packers' chances of winning the Super Bowl.
The larger issue general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will face in the offseason is whether to keep Matthews at inside linebacker, a position that's coming back in importance after being devalued for much of the last 20 years.
And from here it looks like the best decision will be moving him back to outside linebacker in 2015.
The reason to move him back goes to the root of today's NFL. If it's a given that quarterbacks have the greatest influence on winning and losing, then the guys who rush the quarterback come next. And Matthews, while as complete a linebacker as you'll find, is a pass rusher.
But it's not a slam-dunk call, because it's hard to ignore Matthews' profound impact playing inside the past five weeks.
More than anything, it illustrates that many NFL teams and especially the Packers have undervalued inside linebacker as offenses have become more spread out and pass-oriented over the years. But there's also something to be said for putting a player with Matthews' quickness and aggressive mentality in the middle of the field, where he can disrupt more plays even though it reduces his impact as a pass rusher.
Since moving Matthews, the Packers are giving up 90.2 yards rushing a game after allowing 153.5 yards in the first eight games. They've better passed the eyeball test defensively, most notably two weeks ago when they gave up only 21 points to one of the game's premier quarterbacks, New England's Tom Brady, and the No. 3 scoring offense in the league. And according to ProFootballFocus, Matthews in the past five games has a team-high 15 stops, which are defined as offensive failures and include sacks.
Still, when considering Matthews' future — he's 28 years old — you first have to ask why his impact has been so great since the move. And the answer speaks as much to the Packers' shortcomings at inside linebacker as anything.
Matthews has brought a dynamic element to the team's weakest position group with the way he crashes into his gap on running plays, often taking on blockers and running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage.
"Once (top linebackers) decipher what they have in their gap, they go hit it and hit it aggressively," said Dom Capers, the Packers' defensive coordinator. "Clay does that. He has good instincts."
But Matthews' most valuable skill still is pass rushing — his 55 1/2 sacks since his rookie year of 2009 rank No. 8 in the league over that time. He can disrupt the quarterback, and those players are hard to find. So that's where he should play long term.
"We understand Clay's impact rushing the passer," Capers said.
The Packers then will have the offseason to make over their personnel at inside linebacker. If they can improve there next spring like they did at safety this year, they'll no longer have the acute need to play Matthews inside.
Based on playing time, age, cost and performance, there's no reason to think A.J. Hawk (31 in January) or Brad Jones (29 in April) will be back next season. That would save a combined $7.25 million in salary-cap space.
Jamari Lattimore, a free agent in the offseason, saw his playing time cut and now is out with a significant ankle injury. The odds of his return appear small.
That leaves Sam Barrington, the second-year pro who has replaced Hawk as the primary inside linebacker alongside Matthews, and fourth-round draft pick Carl Bradford. Barrington is a potential future starter but not a sure thing. Bradford is a wild card after moving from outside to inside at the end of training camp. He could just as easily bust as become a consistent player.
Undrafted rookie Joe Thomas could have a future — the Packers reached an injury settlement with him in August but liked him enough to sign him to their practice squad Nov. 3. But he's small (6-feet-1, 227 pounds) and a practice-squad prospect at this point.
So assuming the Packers move Matthews back outside next year, then inside linebacker will be Thompson's highest draft priority. That doesn't mean a first-round prospect worth selecting will be there when the Packers' pick comes up, but it's almost a given Thompson will take one in the first two or three rounds after not drafting there at all last year. This position also is begging for help in free agency, whether with mid- or bargain-level players.
During the NFL's free agency era, teams have undervalued inside linebacker for good reason. With the salary cap and free market, they can't pay everybody, so the big money is going on offense to quarterbacks, the left tackles who protect them, and pass catchers; on defense, to pass rushers and cover men (cornerbacks).
That means making do at other spots, and inside linebacker, along with safety, guard and center, have been the positions where many teams go cheap. But as spread-passing games evolve and offenses use passing personnel even on early downs, there's a growing need for inside linebackers who can cover and stop the run equally well.
That's not saying inside linebackers suddenly are as important as pass rushers. Luke Kuechly is as good as any middle linebacker in the game, but he hasn't been able to stop Carolina's drop from No. 2 in total defense last year to No. 19 this season because of personnel losses, most notably suspended defensive end Greg Hardy.
Still, it's instructive to note that the NFL's top three defenses are especially strong at inside linebacker.
Seattle (ranked first) has gone from a good defense back to dominating since Bobby Wagner returned three weeks ago after missing five games because of toe-ligament injury. Detroit (No. 2) might have the game's best defensive line, but as the Packers saw first-hand in Week 3, DeAndre Levy this season also has emerged as one of the best inside linebackers in the game. And Patrick Willis, before his season ended with a toe injury, has helped San Francisco (No. 3) remain a top defense even without his talented running mate, NaVorro Bowman, who hasn't played this season while recovering from knee surgery.
So the days of teams such as the Packers just getting by at inside linebacker probably are fading, just as they are at safety for similar reasons. Offenses are putting passing personnel on the field and then running the ball. So defenses need inside linebackers who can run in coverage, chase down mobile quarterbacks and also make plays against the run.
The decision to move Matthews has been a winner. But if Matthews is playing predominantly inside again in 2015, chances are it will mean the Packers didn't solve their issues there in the offseason.
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