GREEN BAY – No matter how much inside linebacker he plays the rest of his career, Clay Matthews made himself a better player by carrying out the duty for a season and a half.
That's a reality Mike McCarthy readily appreciates as he insists that he's moving Matthews back outside this year. Matthews' leadership and football acumen, already very high, reached a new level with the added responsibilities that came with the position switch in the middle of the 2014 season.
"A number of his teammates always expressed the fact that they always thought Clay was a dynamic player, but they didn't realize how tough of a player he was until he went inside," Mike McCarthy said recently at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I had a number of guys tell me that."
McCarthy also complimented Matthews' smarts, saying as the signal-caller he helped the defense "win the pre-snap" vs. the offense in terms of alignment more than it had previously. That experience and added knowledge of the defense as a whole should only help him as he transitions back to a more regular outside role.
"If Clay was sitting here, he'd tell you that being inside and having to call the defense made him a lot more engaged," McCarthy said. "You play with a different energy, a different mental outlook."
All that makes replacing Matthews on the inside a difficult task, but McCarthy is determined to make it happen. He said repeatedly that outside linebacker will be Matthews' "starting position" in 2016, so the Packers will look to free agency, which begins this week, and the draft in April to find more options to pair inside with Jake Ryan, who ended 2015 as Matthews' partner on base and nickel downs.
The first in-house name is Sam Barrington, who began last season as the starter but was lost for the season in Week 1 to an ankle injury. McCarthy didn't give a timeline for Barrington's return but said he's been "totally on top of his rehab," and he attended all team and position meetings last year as well.
Ryan came on strong toward the end of his rookie season, and he may have taken over earlier for Nate Palmer had it not been for an early-season hamstring injury that forced him to miss time.
Regardless, the Packers will need more depth than Barrington and Ryan, and with both of them the hard-hitting, run-stopping types, a faster inside linebacker with coverage skills against running backs and tight ends is a must add. Ideally, a talented coverage linebacker would do two things – prevent Ryan or Barrington from getting isolated in a bad matchup in nickel, and provide an upgrade in the dime package as the sole inside presence over the undersized and undrafted Joe Thomas.
The right veteran at the right price in free agency is one potential fix, though it would be out of character for GM Ted Thompson to get into the early bidding wars this week. If one of a handful of first-round prospects is available when the Packers are on the clock at No. 27 in late April, it wouldn't be a shock for Green Bay to take him.
Matthews isn't entirely done playing inside, either. McCarthy suggested he'll continue to be a "rover" in certain pass-rush packages and attack up the middle. He won't be lining up at his traditional outside post for every single snap, but it sounds like his thumping inside on obvious run downs will be limited.
"There's definitely schemes and offenses that you might want him in there for a matchup purpose," McCarthy said. "That's still all on the table. The experience of having Clay in there and what's come out of it, we don't want to throw that all away, either."
What the Packers want to do is employ Matthews where he can make the biggest impact on games, and that's generally going to be on the outside. Equivalent impact on the inside won't be easy to find, though.
"We need to be a championship defense," McCarthy said. "We took a step toward that last year, but we need to take another step."