The Green Bay Packers fell to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship due in large part to their inability to hinder Matt Ryan. The Packers outside linebackers must generate pressure off the edge in order for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to unleash his exotic blitz packages and force turnovers.
Capers has been scrutinized for the team’s defensive struggles in the playoffs as evidenced by the loss in Atlanta. Scrutiny should begin with the athletes playing the most important position in his scheme. It is clear the outside linebacker position must be evaluated before looking ahead to the draft or unrestricted free agency.
The Packers currently have six outside linebackers on the roster but Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, and Datone Jones are all set to become free agents in March. That leaves Clay Matthews, Jayrone Elliott, and second-year pro Kyler Fackrell as the only players signed to begin the 2017 season. We must analyze each of these linebackers to understand their status with the team moving forward.
Current State of the Packers Outside Linebackers
Players Under Contract for 2017
- Clay Matthews: Clay Matthews had a very disappointing 2016 season while fighting through shoulder pain and missing time with a hamstring injury. This marks yet another injury-marred campaign since Matthews signed a lucrative contract extension in 2014. It is unclear whether he will have surgery to repair his shoulder this off-season, but the Packers will need him to regain the All-Pro form he once possessed with little proven talent remaining on the roster. After transitioning back to outside linebacker in 2016, Matthews was less than spectacular apart from the occasional splash play. Green Bay will need a healthy Matthews to play more snaps to begin next season. ‘Bloodline’ remains one of the integral pieces for Dom Capers to utilize on a defense devoid of playmakers, therefore he should return to the starting lineup despite his large salary.
- Jayrone Elliott: The third-year undrafted player out of Toledo has shown flashes when granted playing time but has made most of his impact in the NFL on special teams. Apart from one standout game against the Seahawks last year, Elliott ended the season on the injury report and was not granted much playing time when healthy. Elliott will definitely have to compete for snaps in training camp since he hasn’t shown the ability to be the three-down player opposite Matthews thus far in his career.
- Kyler Fackrell: Another player with little significant experience thus far is former third-round pick Kyler Fackrell. As one of the oldest players in the 2016 NFL Draft, Fackrell was expected to become a rotational player early in his career. He played in 13 games his rookie year but only accounted for 18 tackles and two sacks with most of his production coming early in the season. He has the ideal size and power for the position yet proved to be a liability in coverage. Fackrell is an intriguing player to watch in training camp as a high draft pick competing for playing time in his sophomore season.
Players Not Currently Under Contract
- Nick Perry: Perhaps the most influential player on this list, Perry impressed while playing on a one-year deal signed last off-season. He led the team with 11 sacks and was strong against the run before breaking his hand late in the season. When healthy, Perry has looked like the most well-rounded outside linebacker on the team. Now Perry is set to hit free agency at the perfect time for his young career. Perry chose to stay in Green Bay on a fair deal last year, but he will undoubtedly be highly sought after on the open market as a versatile edge rusher coming off his best season yet. The Packers would be wise to re-sign the pass rusher to play opposite Matthews over the next several years.
- Julius Peppers: Peppers just finished the three-year deal he signed with the Packers before the 2014 season. He began 2016 as a rotational player off the bench but finished with 7.5 sacks to go along with two forced fumbles. He still proved effective as a pass rusher but did not fare as well against the run in what was his 15th season. He has not yet decided whether to retire, but unless he returns to the Packers on a cap-friendly deal for one final run, Peppers will most likely not return to the team.
- Datone Jones: A true enigma that has never lived up to his first-round potential or properly been utilized in Capers’s defense, Datone Jones is seeking his second contract with the Packers. After gradually transitioning to outside linebacker from the defensive line, Jones was a fine addition to the pass rush rotation but has never been an every down player. With the lack of depth at the position and Jones’s high draft status, general manager Ted Thompson may bring him back on a short-term deal similar to Perry’s last year.
In order for the Packers to sustain a more consistent pass rush in 2017, the players above must stay healthy and live up to their lofty expectations. The Packers should start by re-signing Nick Perry. Perry has proven that he can play all three downs for this defense, and at 26 he is still young enough to build around moving forward. Although Perry will be an expensive addition, he was a first round pick of Thompson’s and has gradually developed each year in the league. Datone Jones and Julius Peppers should not receive such lucrative deals if they return to the team. As usual, the draft will likely be the largest source of replacement for the Packers. Viewed as a position of strength prior to the 2016 season, outside linebacker is definitely an area of the defense in flux and one worth keeping an eye on throughout the off-season.