Signs suggest Matthews could end up at ILB again

Pete Dougherty
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For all who wondered if the Julius Peppers signing last year might convince Ted Thompson to tweak his approach to free agency, we have our answer: it didn't.

Peppers was a godsend for the Green Bay Packers' defense in 2014. But here we are, a little more than three weeks into free agency in 2015, and Thompson is the only general manager in the NFL who hasn't signed a free agent from another team.

That doesn't preclude him from signing a player or three in the coming weeks. There still are mid- and lower-tier free agents available, and the prices are more palatable now that the higher-demand players are off the market.

But really, this is back to business as usual. Thompson's approach in general has served him well –— the Packers' .616 winning percentage since he became GM in 2005 is fourth-best in the league over that time. But it has implications for the Packers' defense in general and possibly Clay Matthews in particular for 2015.

Going into the offseason, I'd have bet on Thompson signing at least one inside linebacker by now. It seemed a given that at minimum he'd want a veteran as a fallback starter in case the high draft pick he'll presumably use at that position isn't ready as a rookie.

Maybe that free agent still is out there, but it sure doesn't look like it. All the top- and mid-tier inside linebackers from a relatively weak free agent class are signed, including Curtis Lofton (Oakland), Bruce Carter (Tampa Bay), Nate Irving (Indianapolis), Justin Durant (Atlanta), J.T. Thomas (New York Giants), Malcolm Smith (Oakland), Akeem Ayers (St. Louis) and Sean Weatherspoon (Arizona).

Instead, it's starting to look like Matthews could end up playing the majority of his snaps at inside linebacker again next season, just as he did for the second half of last year. Coach Mike McCarthy did nothing to suggest otherwise on Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix when asked about the decision to move Matthews last year.

"(He) made a huge impact playing inside linebacker, bigger than I think all of us would've imagined," McCarthy said. "I know his teammates in the exit interview, a number of them just brought that up outside of the conversation, what a big impact he made when he went inside."

Keeping Matthews inside wouldn't be all bad. His move there at the bye last season was the definition of a difference maker: In the eight games after, the Packers ranked No. 9 in the NFL in fewest points allowed and No. 6 in fewest yards; they'd ranked Nos. 19 and 25 through the first eight games.

Matthews also had 8 ½ of his 11 sacks in those last eight games. That's a surprise.

But Matthews' best position still is outside linebacker. Pass rushers are the NFL's second most valuable commodity, behind only quarterbacks, and Matthews is one of the game's best outside rushers. He's an excellent athlete, plus he has all the techniques to set up linemen early in the game for countermoves later.

I'd have thought Thompson's goal for the offseason would be to get good enough at inside linebacker via the draft and free agency to move Matthews outside, if not full time, then most of the time.

But that doesn't appear to be the priority. Not that it still can't happen. Thompson could draft an inside linebacker in the first two or three rounds, and that player could end up starting inside along with Sam Barrington from Week 1.

But teams miss on draft picks, even high picks, all the time. Other players need a year or two to develop. So there's at least as good a chance that the pick won't be good enough to start in 2015.

In that case, what are the fallbacks aside from Matthews? For now they're Carl Bradford, the 2014 fourth-round pick who moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker the last week of training camp last year; undersized Joe Thomas (227 pounds), who spent the second half of last season on the Packers' practice squad; and Josh Francis, who played in the CFL and Indoor Football League in the last year.

Could Bradford, for instance, become a viable starter with a full offseason of work at his new position? Sure, he could. But would you bet on? No way. So the smart money says that if a rookie isn't ready, then Matthews will be back where he finished last season.

In fact, you have to wonder if that possibility is playing into Thompson's draft strategy.

Yes, the GM's need for an inside linebacker is acute, but so is cornerback, where he just lost two free agents (Tramon Williams and Davon House). In today's NFL, defenses need to go four or five deep at that position to protect against the spread passing game and injuries. Right now the Packers go only three deep comfortably with Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde.

And then there's outside linebacker, where Peppers could be down to his final season, and Nick Perry and Mike Neal are in the last year of their contracts. If there's an outside pass rusher that Thompson likes at No. 30 or No. 62 overall, is there any reason to think Thompson wouldn't take him, knowing Matthews very well could end up inside again anyway?

As said, there's still a lot of offseason to go, and an inside linebacker or two still could be coming in free agency. But at this point, with all the most valued players gone, it might not make any difference.

All the signs still suggest Matthews could end up inside either way. That's my bet, anyway.

As to whether it's a good idea, I still think he's better outside, and that Thompson should have gotten into the bidding for a fallback starter inside.

But it's also hard to ignore former Packers defensive back Charles Woodson's comments on the matter last week. Woodson told the Press-Gazette that when he still was with the team he'd even lobbied defensive coordinator Dom Capers to play Matthews more often in the middle.

"They saw it this year moving him inside and just allowing him to have really free rein over the field," Woodson said, "and he was all over the place. It was awesome to watch him play football this year."

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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