Packers face tough decisions in deep OLB room
Eight months ago, the Green Bay Packers ran empty of healthy outside linebackers in a 23-20 playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Now, they suddenly have a surplus at the position.
Six of the nine outside linebackers on the Packers' roster have all played in the league. Two Pro Bowlers, Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, are in for heavy workloads should they stay healthy. Mike Neal was re-signed in March to add depth to the position and an occasional inside pass rush.
In theory, it should give Matthews more freedom in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' defense, but also leaves 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry, Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer trying to re-establish themselves after combining for more than 850 defensive snaps last season.
That's not to mention rookies Carl Bradford, Jayrone Elliott and Adrian Hubbard behind them. Bradford was a fourth-round pick in May and Elliott is coming off a three-sack performance in Saturday's 21-7 win over St. Louis.
"I think it's the deepest group we've had since I've been here," Capers said. "I feel better because we've got Clay, who's an experienced guy, and you've got Julius, who has a lot of experience. You've got Nick and Mike; Mike's 700 plays under his belt. You've got Andy Mulumba and Nate, who have a lot of plays under their belt. We've got more guys there, which you need them because you see how fast we go through them sometimes."
That's probably not a bad thing when you consider defensive lineman Datone Jones was forced into a two-point stance in January's playoff game due to injuries. In a little more than a week, it will be up to general manager Ted Thompson to make heads-or-tails of the situation.
Matthews, Peppers and Neal are locks, and it's hard to envision a scenario where the Packers would give up on Perry despite a quiet camp.
Mulumba and Palmer are still working as the No. 3 outside linebackers and have roles on the No. 1 special-teams units.
They face a tough decision with their rookies, specifically Bradford. At 6-foot-1, 252 pounds, Bradford seems better built as an inside linebacker, but the Packers have strictly rushed him from the outside. He's played 19 defensives snaps without a tackle.
The last time the Packers cut a rookie selected that high in the draft came in 2006 when receiver Cory Rodgers failed to make the team.
"We have him at outside linebacker right now, I can't judge what position he's going to be playing. I'll leave it at that," linebackers coach Winston Moss said this week. "He's working hard, I think we've done well in the past being able to convert outside backers to the inside, but we'll see what happens."
More undrafted outside linebackers (five) have made the Packers' opening roster since 2009 than any other position on the roster. Everyone expected the 6-foot-6 Hubbard to be the favorite this year, but Elliott is the one who has stood out.
After starting only his senior year at Toledo, Elliott had three sacks and a forced fumbles in eight snaps against the Rams.
The Packers kept five outside linebackers last year, but could keep an extra one this year with Neal and Peppers' background as defensive linemen.