The most important position in the Green Bay Packers’ 3-4 defense is outside linebacker.
Coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme is built around the two-way, rush-cover skills of his outside backers, though the ability that matters most is getting after the quarterback.
And considering the age and contract status of several key members of the Packers’ outside linebacker corps, that position group has to be general manager Ted Thompson’s greatest need when looking ahead to next year’s draft.
That’s true regardless of what happens this offseason with the freakish Julius Peppers.
At age 35, Peppers still is playing good football. If his effort and playmaking tend to wax and wane, so be it. He’s one of the Packers’ two or three best defensive players, behind only Clay Matthews and perhaps Mike Daniels. Peppers leads the team in sacks (5½) and, according to Pro Football Focus, is tied with Daniels for second in combined sacks, hits and hurries with 22 (Matthews leads with 26).
And there’s more to it than numbers. Peppers more often than not seems to do something helpful in big moments. Just last week, with the game on the line on San Diego’s fourth-and-goal from the 3 in the final 20 seconds, he bull-rushed into Philip Rivers’ face and landed a hit just as the quarterback released the ball. Rookie cornerback Damarious Randall made the bigger play by knocking down the pass at the pylon, but Peppers made it a tougher throw.
One of the great truths of the NFL is that football is a young man’s game. The adage that it’s better to part with a player a year early than a year late is a general truth, too. But there are exceptions, and Peppers, even at age 36 next year, looks like one.
So keeping in mind that we’re not even halfway through the long NFL season, there’s every reason to think the Packers should bring him back next year at his $7 million salary plus game-day roster bonuses worth up to another $500,000.
That goes against most everything I’ve learned about the NFL. But $7.5 million is hardly outrageous for a player with his remarkable history of good health (he has missed only two games because of injury in 13-plus NFL seasons) and performance level so far at age 35.
But Peppers‘ return won’t diminish the Packers’ need at outside linebacker. Even if he returns and plays well, he’s still near the end of the line. If the Packers don’t have to replace him next year, they almost surely will in 2017. Add to that Matthews’ exceptional play at inside linebacker, plus the impending free agency of Mike Neal and Nick Perry, and the Packers’ 2016 draft screams out for replenishing the talent at the defense’s critical playmaking position.
We’ll start with Matthews. For as good as he was at outside linebacker, his impact on the Packers’ defense has been even greater since moving inside. So while his ability to excel at either spot allows the Packers flexibility in roster building and play calling, it’s looking more likely he’ll remain primarily inside next season.
Then there are Neal and Perry, who will be unrestricted free agents in March. They’ve played decent football when available and provided genuine depth. But both have worrisome injury histories, and neither is a must re-sign. Neal has been the healthier of the two recently — he has missed 24 games because of injury in five-plus seasons, though none beginning from 2013 — but he’s 28. Perry is only 25 but has missed 17 of a possible 54 games, including last Sunday because of shoulder and hand injuries.
The same factors that have to concern the Packers will dampen Neal’s and Perry’s value on the open market. But both could draw interest as left ends from teams that run 4-3 schemes. It’s hard to see Thompson re-signing both, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if neither returned. That will depend in part on how Jayrone Elliott and Andy Mulumba perform the rest of the season.
So far, the second-year pro Elliott has been a viable rotational player who occasionally has flashed pass rush (two sacks). Mulumba looked like the better of the two in camp, but Elliott is the one who keeps showing up in games.
Regardless, this position demands high levels of talent and depth. If Peppers returns, his play could slip, maybe only a little but maybe a lot. Considering how good he has been since the Packers signed him last year, any drop could show up in the defense’s play overall. So Thompson must have contingencies.
And regardless of Peppers’ play, and whether Neal and Perry return, the Packers need more quality outside rushers. While they’re hard to find, the odds always are better with high-round picks than lower.
So I’d put good money on Thompson drafting an outside linebacker in the first couple of rounds. He won’t force it, but he can make it happen, and the guess here is he will. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stunner if he drafted two, though whether he’d do it in the first two rounds, like he did at cornerback this year with Randall and Quinten Rollins, is a longer shot.
Probably next on the list is tight end.
Second-year pro Richard Rodgers has some attractive attributes — he's a big target with excellent hands and is as an improving blocker. But he lacks the athleticism to threaten defenses down the seam or after the catch. Regardless of whether Andrew Quarless returns, Thompson can help Aaron Rodgers enormously if he finds a tight end who can make plays. The first round would not be too early to look.
After that, determining priorities probably is splitting hairs.
Though inside linebackers have become devalued with spread passing games, Matthews and the other upper-tier players at that position show they still can make a big difference. If a complete player is available there in the first couple rounds, Thompson easily could take him. Capers then could determine Matthews’ role from there.
Receiver could move up the priority board as well, depending on Jordy Nelson’s recovery from knee-reconstruction surgery and the performance of young receivers Ty Montgomery, Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis over the next three months. Thompson has made a priority of ensuring Rodgers has ample weapons in the passing game, though taking a tight end early could help there.
And the defensive line almost always needs replenishing. Even assuming Thompson and his contract negotiator, Russ Ball, will pony up the $10 million or so a year it’s going to take to re-sign Mike Daniels, they still have two others who will be free agents in '16, B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion, and another who probably will be a free agent in '17, Datone Jones.
Raji’s rejuvenated play makes him a good bet for re-signing, though it’s not a given. And Guion arguably has been outplayed by second-year pro Mike Pennel, even if Guion has more snaps (111 to 92).
On the offensive line, guard and tackle are on the radar even if the starters are set for at least another year.
At guard, starters Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang will be in the last year of their contracts in ’16, and Thompson might try to protect himself in next year’s draft.
At tackle, the backup job is the issue because Don Barclay will be a free agent in the offseason. He has been good enough, though he’s probably limited to right tackle. A swing tackle would be more valuable.
Running back also could move up the list with James Starks becoming a free agent in March and Eddie Lacy having ankle problems this season.
But if you want an early handicap on Thompson’s 2016 draft, start with outside linebacker. He needs to commence rebuilding that position ASAP.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.