Matthews' fate could be in Ryan's hands
It's safe to say Clay Matthews will be playing some inside linebacker this season.
The question is, how much?
Will he be there a majority of the time, as he was the second half of the regular season? Nearly full time, as he was in the NFC championship game? Or will someone, anyone play well enough to take some snaps off him, and allow him to play outside linebacker at least as much as he plays inside?
At first take, the Green Bay Packers' draft didn't offer much hope for immediate help. General manager Ted Thompson didn't select an inside linebacker until Michigan's Jake Ryan late in the fourth round.
But just because Ryan wasn't drafted high doesn't mean he won't be a good player, and it doesn't mean he won't play some as a rookie. Though the odds are against it, recent Packers history shows we can't dismiss the possibility that Ryan will be more than a special teams player in 2015.
Now, it would be asking a lot for him to start right away, and this isn't a prediction that he will. But it bears pointing out that in the middle rounds of the past two drafts, Thompson has found two surprise full-season rookie starters who appear to be long-term answers at their positions: left tackle David Bakhtiari, a fourth-rounder in 2013, and center Corey Linsley, a fifth-rounder last year.
We should also note that they're the exception. Thompson's only other pick in those rounds who played extensively as a rookie was offensive lineman Tony Moll in 2005, and he started by default. With Matthews as an option, the Packers don't have to force Ryan on the field.
But Ryan could upgrade the position this season even if he's not a starter. The Packers would have to be happy if he plays well enough to win a role in a specific defensive package early and expands his playing time as the season goes on.
That's the kind of player Mike Daniels and Micah Hyde were as rookies. Daniels, a fourth-rounder in '12, played 48.1 percent of the Packers' defensive snaps as a rotational defensive lineman. Hyde, a fifth-rounder in '13, played 39.1 percent of the defensive snaps, mainly as a nickel or dime cornerback.
To be clear, Thompson will have drafted well if Ryan plays even that much this season. The GM selected 15 fourth-rounders in his 10 previous drafts, and only a few aside from Daniels and Hyde played enough to warrant mentioning. Guards Josh Sitton (two starts in 2008) and T.J. Lang (three starts in '09) were injury fill-ins but at least had established starters ahead of them. Johnathan Franklin ('13) was looking like a decent change-of-pace backup halfback until a neck injury ended his rookie season and career.
More commonly, the fourth-rounders' rookie seasons were nondescript or lost to injury, and often so were their careers. Among them were Davon House — who eventually panned out — Allen Barbre, Jeremy Thompson, Will Blackmon, Cory Rodgers, Brandon Underwood and Brady Poppinga.
But it's not that big of a leap to think Ryan will be better than released veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones. Hawk's body was used up by last season, his ninth in the NFL, and Jones already was in physical decline in his sixth NFL season.
A high-ranking scout for another team said players at many NFL positions, including inside linebacker, start losing athleticism in their fifth or sixth season.
"You're hoping younger means something, younger and more athletic," the scout said of drafting a player such as Ryan. "You're hoping you can at least get that, that if you can upgrade on athleticism alone, it should help a little bit."
The scout rated Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney as the top inside linebacker in this draft, followed by, in order, Clemson's Stephone Anthony, TCU's Paul Dawson, Miami's Denzel Perryman and UCLA's Eric Kendricks. None had first-round grades.
He rated Ryan among the next tier at the position and projected him to be a special-teams contributor early and perhaps a part-time inside linebacker a couple of years into his career. But he didn't rule out Ryan working into some personnel packages this season, perhaps the base 3-4 and maybe even some run-oriented variations of the nickel, which would allow Matthews to take those snaps at outside linebacker.
"He doesn't have to be the second coming of Ray Nitschke," the scout said, "just solid and dependable and stop the run. Then they can do other things as far as (passing-defending) packages. So he doesn't necessarily have to be a three-down player, he can be a two-down player."
Ryan isn't the Packers' only hope at the position. Carl Bradford, a fourth-round pick last year, has been working at inside linebacker since late in training camp last year, and by August he'll have had a full offseason at his new position. The Packers seem to like his raw ability.
But Ryan has the better odds. He played middle linebacker as a senior last season and has been a traditional linebacker his entire career. Bradford, on the other hand, played mostly defensive end and outside pass rusher at Arizona State.
Ryan also is taller (6-feet-23/8 to Bradford's 6-03/4) and faster (4.65-second 40 to Bradford's 4.74 seconds).
Either way, the Packers will find out soon enough.
They'll get their first look at Ryan at this weekend's rookie minicamp. But training camp will be what matters. Linsley and Bakhtiari looked like they belonged from Day 1 in pads. Daniels and Hyde flashed ability early in camp as well. Ryan will get his chance too.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty