The following is the sixth installment in a series of stories that’ll examine the Packers’ roster position by position. The series continues with the linebackers.
GREEN BAY—For the Packers defense to be at its best in 2014, two things must occur.
Clay Matthews needs to stay healthy and maintain the Pro Bowl form he showed at outside linebacker his first four seasons in the league, and a credible, consistent pass-rush threat must be established from the outside linebacker spot opposite Matthews.
The first requirement wasn’t a major issue until last season, when a twice-broken thumb limited Matthews to 11 games (keeping him out of the playoffs) and reduced his effectiveness in several others. He sat out OTAs and minicamp as a precaution to aid the healing process, and given his hamstring troubles of past summers, his workload will be watched closely in training camp as well.
The second issue is one the Packers hope they have finally solved with the free-agent signing of Julius Peppers, who will convert from his traditional defensive end spot to a hybrid end/outside linebacker role for Dom Capers. Peppers said when OTAs began that he’s never had a pass-rushing companion of Matthews’ caliber, while Matthews could say the same thing.
There are questions as to how much the 34-year-old Peppers has left in the tank, but he’s only one year removed from back-to-back double-digit sack seasons in 2011-12 for Chicago, and the Packers coaching staff has said it doesn’t plan to use him for the 800-plus snaps the Bears regularly did.
That’s because Mike Neal is another hybrid player who will look to build on his best season. Neal had a career-high five sacks in 2013, notched his first career interception and forced a fumble for the first time since his rookie year of 2010. Dogged by injuries through his first three seasons in the league, Neal played in every game for the first time in his career as well.
Nick Perry’s career has begun much like Neal’s in the injury department, and he hopes to change that. He recorded three sacks in a game and a half last season but broke his foot on the third of those sacks and was either out or limited the rest of the season. When healthy, the former first-round pick has made an impact, but he’ll come into training camp having missed the entire offseason program.
The list of additional young options at outside linebacker begins with Andy Mulumba, who made the team as an undrafted rookie a year ago and will have an opportunity to show the strides he planned on making his second season. He’ll be in what promises to be a competitive mix that includes 2013 sixth-round pick Nate Palmer, 2014 fourth-round pick Carl Bradford from Arizona State, plus undrafted rookies Adrian Hubbard (Alabama) and Jayrone Elliott (Toledo).
At inside linebacker, A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones remain the starters, with fourth-year pro Jamari Lattimore, who re-signed in the offseason as a restricted free agent, right on their heels.
The Packers like the thump Lattimore provides in the middle and could look to get him more involved in defensive sub-packages, even if he’s not a starter. In any case, he’ll be primed to step in if health issues arise. Hawk has missed only two games to injury in his eight-year career, while Jones missed stretches last season with hamstring and ankle injuries.
Looking to challenge the top three on the depth chart is Sam Barrington, a seventh-round draft pick in 2013. Primarily a special-teams player as a rookie, Barrington went on injured reserve following a hamstring injury in Week 9 but was a full participant in the offseason.
In what was thought to be a weak draft at inside linebacker, the Packers didn’t select any players, but they did sign Utah State’s Jake Doughty and South Carolina State’s Joe Thomas in undrafted free agency. Both players made a good first impression in OTAs and now wait for the pads to go on. Oklahoma State’s Shaun Lewis was also signed late in the spring, joining the team for the final week of OTAs and the ensuing minicamp. Previously in Countdown to Camp: