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Defense looks to regain its outside edge

Posted Apr 24, 2018

Packers seek options behind Clay Matthews and Nick Perry


This is the sixth in a series of stories examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. The series continues with the linebackers.

GREEN BAY – Pass rush is still the name of the game in the NFL, and Mike Pettine will have two stalwarts to build around in his first season as the Packers’ defensive coordinator.

Clay Matthews and Nick Perry again stand atop Green Bay’s depth chart at outside linebacker going into 2018 after leading the defense with 7½ and seven sacks, respectively, last season.

This will be the first time in Matthews’ nine-year NFL career he won’t play in a Dom Capers-coached defense. The six-time Pro Bowler led the defense in sacks seven times during his nine seasons with Capers en route to setting the franchise record for career sacks at 80 this past season.

Pettine, who coordinated five top 10 defenses with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills from 2009-13, said at his introductory news conference in January he’s excited to get to work with Matthews. Like Capers, Pettine plans to move the 31-year-old linebacker around to maximize his versatility.

Coming off a career-high 11 sacks in 2016, Perry got off to a fast start last season with seven sacks through the first nine games. Health eventually became an issue again for Perry, who missed four games due to ankle, shoulder and hand injuries before being placed on injured reserve Dec. 30.

Perry, 28, is still eying his first injury-free year, but has been productive when on the field in notching 30½ sacks despite missing 24 regular-season games in his first six NFL campaigns.

Although Green Bay managed to record a respectable 37 sacks in 2017, inconsistency often led to feast-or-famine production, and the Packers finished outside of the league’s top 15 in sacks for only the second time in the past nine seasons.

As history has proven, the key to sustaining the pass rush for the long haul begins with a solid rotation of rushers. As the Packers look to lessen the load on Matthews and Perry, they have a plethora of options to choose from with Kyler Fackrell, Vince Biegel, Reggie Gilbert and Chris Odom all returning.

A staple on the Packers’ special-teams units, Fackrell saw his workload on defense (446 snaps) and production (28 tackles and three sacks) grow in his second NFL season, though the coaches continue to preach the importance of his physicality.

Biegel had a virtual redshirt rookie season after undergoing foot surgery shortly after last year's rookie orientation. His rehabilitation caused him to spend the first half of the regular season on the physically unable to perform list.

Odom was healthy for the duration of the season but played in only five games after being claimed off waivers from Atlanta following the league’s 53-man roster reduction.

The biggest surprise perhaps on the entire defense was Gilbert, who spent a majority of his two NFL seasons on the Packers’ practice squad. The 6-foot-3, 261-pound linebacker came on strong after a late-December call-up, recording five pressures, three quarterback hits and a sack in two games.

The NFL Draft also remains a strong option for the Packers, who haven’t taken a projected outside linebacker in the first two rounds since selecting Perry 28th overall in 2012.

It remains to be seen whether Pettine will continue to feature a hybrid presence in the middle of the Packers’ defense, but he has two traditional inside linebackers at his disposal.

Blake Martinez is eager to take another step in his game after finishing second in the NFL with 142 tackles last season. Still only 23, Martinez developed into the three-down linebacker the Packers felt he could be after taking him in the fourth round out of Stanford in 2016.

The 6-foot-2, 237-pounder became the voice of the defense during the second half of the season, finishing the year with the communication helmet after Morgan Burnett missed four games due to injury.

Jake Ryan, entering his fourth NFL season, is the most veteran inside linebacker on the roster after Joe Thomas signed a free-agent contract with Dallas last month. Ryan played 506 defensive snaps on first and second down last season, recording 81 tackles, a forced fumble and sack in 15 games (12 starts).

The Packers have one other inside linebacker on their depth chart behind Martinez and Ryan at the moment in former Oklahoma safety Ahmad Thomas, who moved to linebacker after signing to Green Bay’s practice squad Nov. 29.

PRE-DRAFT ROSTER REVIEW
DL: Deep defensive line
OL: A tale of two sides
WR: Perimeter pass-catchers
QB: Backup competition already in place
RB: Position starkly changed shape

 
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