Dougherty: Packers hoping for one more good year from Brooks
This was about as un-Ted Thompson-like as it gets.
This week the Green Bay Packers general manager agreed to terms with an old (33) outside linebacker who’d lost his starting job in San Francisco. That's exactly the kind of aging, descending player Thompson almost never touches.
But desperate times and all.
It apparently took minor injuries that knocked Clay Matthews (groin tightness) and Nick Perry (ankle) out of last week’s game at Denver to drive home to Thompson just how precarious the Packers’ outside pass rush is. But even before then, it was clear the Packers were short of rushers and only one injury away from a real problem there.
Enter Brooks. The 49ers cut him last week after he’d lost his starting spot to third-year pro Eli Harold. The move saved them $4.45 million in cap space and opened playing time for younger, ascending players behind him.
So what can Brooks do for the Packers as a 33-year old playing a quick-twitch position?
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All things considered, you have to think he’s going to help them. His reported salary of $3.5 million plus incentives speaks volumes. That’s a lot for a player his age and at this time of year.
But Brooks always has been a talented guy – not Julius Peppers talented, but talented enough – and he has aged well enough to think he can help a team that’s perilously thin behind Matthews and Perry. Brooks walks in the door as the No. 3 outside linebacker, ahead of Jayrone Elliott and Kyler Fackrell, who haven’t rushed well in training camp, and fourth-round pick Vince Biegel, who looks like he’s going to remain on the physically unable to perform list to start the season.
In Brooks’ eight seasons with San Francisco – he spent his first two seasons with Cincinnati after the Bengals selected him in the third round of the 2006 supplemental draft – he averaged 6.4 sacks. He was never a sacks machine (his high was 8 ½ in 2013), but he has had at least six sacks the last six years. That includes six last season at age 32.
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He also played outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme in San Francisco, including four years for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who is a disciple of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. He knows the Packers’ system.
On Thursday I asked a scout from one of the 49ers’ rivals in the NFC West what kind of season he’d predict for Brooks, assuming Brooks plays regularly as a backup. The scout guessed he’ll get five sacks.
“He will help,” the scout said. “He’s a bandage. They’ll be looking for an upgrade (next year). Five (sacks) or more. He fits that system.”
Said another scout from that division: “When he’s healthy, he’s a stud.”
The question is how much age will rob him. It usually hits fast in the NFL; in one offseason a guy can go from pretty good to not good enough. So we’ll have to see on that. But if the first scout is right, and the Packers get five or six sacks out of Brooks, they’ll have to consider it money well spent.
The Packers are in this position because they let Julius Peppers walk and didn’t replace him. The Peppers move looked like the right one at the time. He’d played a lot of good football for them, but he was 37. Maybe he had another decent year left in him, but he definitely was slowing. It was time to bring in some new talent and let it grow.
But that was assuming the Packers would use a high draft pick at outside linebacker. They didn’t take one until Biegel in the fourth round. And he’s still out after having foot surgery in May.
Thompson instead went for coverage. He signed cornerback Davon House in free agency, and used his first two draft picks on defensive backs (Kevin King and Josh Jones).
So after the draft, you knew the Packers’ pass rush was their potential Achilles’ heel. Matthews’ age (31) and injury history, and Perry’s injury history, were red flags from the start. Then neither Fackrell nor Elliott rushed in camp any better than last year, so the issue got real.
It’s not like this is a secret, or negative spin for the sake of being negative.
Just this week, Mike Sando of ESPN.com talked to anonymous executives around the NFL to find out the greatest concern for each team in the league entering the season. The Packers’? That their pass rush wouldn’t protect their cover men well enough.
“If you show a weakness, you are going to see that weakness attacked every week until you fix it,” an unnamed executive told Sando. “You cannot rely on the Clay Matthews of 2010 or whatever it was, when he was in the race for MVP. These guys need to be a force out there rushing the passer.”
The Packers haven’t announced the Brooks signing, so he wasn’t in uniform Thursday night in the preseason finale against St. Louis. Not that he would have played anyway.
But they are going to need him, starting in Week 1. Even if Matthews and Perry stay healthy all year, they are banking on this guy having one more year left in him.