Packers must rebuild at outside linebacker

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers linebackers Jake Ryan (47) and Nick Perry (53) stuff Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington (38) during Sunday's game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Evan Siegle/P-G Media

Each Monday last NFL season I shared online four quick takes from the previous day’s Green Bay Packers game. Here’s the second offseason edition of "Four Downs with Dougherty":

First down: One of the most difficult free-agency forecasts for the Packers is what will happen with outside linebackers Nick Perry and Mike Neal.

Both have injury histories of note. Both probably are better suited as 4-3 defensive ends than 3-4 outside linebackers. Neither has been consistently productive as a pass rusher, but both also have had their moments.

In the end, if I’m the Packers, I’m OK with both leaving. I probably wouldn’t offer Neal much more than the veteran’s minimum ($760,000). He’ll turn 29 in June, and though he has played every game the last three seasons, he missed 28 games his first three years, and his injury issues go back to college at Purdue. He gives an honest effort, but his four sacks in 734 defensive snaps says he lacks burst, and that’s not going to improve as he gets older.

Perry is a tougher call because he’s younger (26 next month) and had a strong showing in the playoffs (3 ½ sacks in two games). But he has been an injury waiting to happen. He has missed 18 games in his four seasons since the Packers selected him in the first round of the 2012 draft, and when his assortment of shoulder, foot and hand injuries haven’t kept him out of games, they’ve regularly limited his practice time and performance on game day.

Perry never has had more than four sacks in a season and is basically a one-trick pony as a rusher – he’s all power. But he has flashed some ability throughout his career. Perhaps the injury history will depress his value on the open market and allow the Packers to re-sign him at a palatable price, maybe in the $2 million a year range. But it wouldn’t at all surprise if a team that plays a 4-3 defense offers more to sign him as an end.

The Packers can afford to let both go for a few reasons.

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One, Clay Matthews is moving back to outside linebacker, so there are a lot fewer outside-linebacker snaps to go around.

Second, Datone Jones played some outside linebacker last season, and there’s no reason to think he can’t provide what Perry and Neal did playing occasionally at that position.

Third, Jayrone Elliott has flashed enough rush ability to get some snaps on passing downs.

And fourth, the Packers need to draft an outside linebacker who can add more to their rush than any of the rotational guys from last year. Pass rushers win games. That position should be in play for general manager Ted Thompson starting in the first round.

Second down: Watching the video of Peyton Manning’s retirement announcement Monday, it was hard not to contrast it to Brett Favre’s announcement eight years ago that he was retiring from the Packers.

Manning showed up to his news conference wearing a suit and tie, and he read his entire announcement, which lasted 11 minutes, 45 seconds, from a script that included a couple of jokes. He choked up numerous times but never outright cried.

Favre at his news conference wore an open-collared dress shirt with a t-shirt underneath. His announcement speech was off the cuff, and he started crying 20 seconds into his 9 minute, 53-second talk.

Each handled it the way he played: Manning with meticulous preparation and clinical execution, Favre informal, a little messy and relying mainly on his heart and gut.

Also interesting to note, Manning quit because his body gave out. Favre repeatedly said he was worn out mentally. Then again, he came out of retirement, played three more years and quit for good only when his body finally gave out, too.

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Third down: One free-agent tight end came off the market Monday when Dwayne Allen re-signed with the Colts for a four-year deal that Pro Football Talk reported is worth $29.4 million and included $16 million guaranteed. That’s big money for a guy who had only 45 receptions the last two seasons combined.

It’s hard to envision Thompson willing to pay Allen that kind of money. But there still are several tight ends who warrant a look at one of the two weakest positions on the Packers’ roster (inside linebacker is the other): San Diego’s Ladarius Green, Denver’s Vernon Davis, Los Angeles’ Jared Cook, Indianapolis’ Coby Fleener, and if the Chicago Bears release him, Martellus Bennett.

Allen’s contract, though, suggests the price is going to be high. Green is only 25 and probably will get similar money, if not more. That’s assuming the initial report of Allen’s $7.35 million average didn’t inflate his deal.

Green is faster and more athletic. But would Thompson fork out that kind of money for another team’s young and relatively unproven player? I’d guess not.

That would leave Davis, Cook, Fleener and perhaps Bennett in play. You have to wonder if Davis will end up being the best bargain of the group. His age (32) could hold down his value compared to the others. But he’s the rare player who still runs well at his age and size.

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Fourth down: reported that Julius Peppers is trying to sell former Chicago Bears teammate Matt Forte on the Packers. I’m still not seeing it.

Sure, if Forte can be had for $1.5 million a year, it would be worth pursuing. But I’m guessing he gets more like twice that on the open market. And for a 30-year-old running back with the most combined catches and carries in the NFL since 2008, that’s more than the Packers should pay.

They’re about $19 million under the salary cap. They’ll need about $5 million for their draft class. If they re-sign B.J. Raji, that likely would take another $3 million to $4 million. If I’m them, I’m looking to spend what’s left at tight end and inside linebacker, not backup running back.

Maybe Thompson sees it differently. Whatever the case, even if Thompson gets involved in free agency this year, don’t expect to hear the Packers’ name for at least a couple more days, after the big-money deals are done. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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