Packers.com is taking a look at the Packers' roster, position by position. The sixth installment focuses on the linebackers.
GREEN BAY—The Packers' search for a full-time complement to Clay Matthews at outside linebacker will continue into 2014, but it's not for a lack of effort that it remains ongoing.
The defense has tried no less than a half dozen fellow bookends to Matthews on the outside over the last two seasons, yet, for various reasons no one has emerged as the definitive answer.
The best candidates at this point remain Nick Perry and Mike Neal, but neither is a sure thing.
After spending 10 games plus two postseason contests in 2012 on injured reserve, Perry missed five more games in 2013 and was limited in several others due to injuries. Perry had three sacks and two forced fumbles in the season's first five games before he broke his foot – on a sack-fumble play in Baltimore, no less.
Thereafter, he recorded one sack-fumble, in Detroit, and one other sack, against San Francisco in the playoffs. Optimistically, if Perry's impact plays before the foot injury are tripled, they might represent his production over a full season, but staying healthy is the only way Perry can turn those projections into reality.
Neal had the healthiest of his first four pro seasons in 2013, though a knee injury that knocked him out of the playoff game early was a significant blow to the defense. He played in every game for the first time in his career despite missing a fair amount of practice time due to nagging ailments, and his five sacks were respectable, given the transition he was making from defensive lineman.
Neal's position switch remains a work in progress, though, and he's heading for free agency, so there's no guarantee he'll return.
It didn't help the unit, of course, that Matthews missed five regular-season games and the playoff contest with a twice-broken thumb, while playing with various sized casts on his hand in the intervening seven games. Still, his 7½ sacks and three forced fumbles led the team, which speaks to how much the defense missed his playmaking ability when he was sidelined or played at less than full strength.
The youngest prospects at the position are Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer, who got their feet wet as rookies, and recent signee Chase Thomas, added to the roster last month.
Undrafted out of Eastern Michigan, Mulumba got the most playing time, as Palmer, a sixth-round pick from Illinois State, was a game day inactive for half the games.
Mulumba had minimal impact as yet another transition project, though he deserves credit for gutting out the wild-card game on a bum knee with the position's ranks depleted. There's also a lot to like about his size (6-3, 260) and raw athletic ability, which helped him beat out Dezman Moses for a roster spot in training camp.
In all likelihood, Mulumba would have been strictly a special-teams player in 2013 while learning the outside linebacker position had injuries not struck both Matthews and Perry. The unexpected experience gained should only benefit him moving forward.
At inside linebacker, veteran A.J. Hawk is coming off perhaps his best season, when he played lighter and looked faster than in previous years. He played in every game for the seventh time in his eight seasons, and his 153 total tackles led the team by a wide margin. More important, Hawk had the largest number of high-impact plays since his rookie year, with five sacks, plus an interception, forced fumble and recovery.
Coaches routinely praise Hawk for his communication skills and ability to get the defensive front seven aligned and adjusted properly, traits that will make him hard to unseat if the Packers look to go younger and bigger at that spot.
The tandem inside position will be scrutinized and likely open to competition, too. It was manned most of last season by Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore, though neither could stay healthy the entire year. Lattimore, a restricted free agent, packs the bigger punch of the two and has been a special-teams leader in recent years, while Jones has been the more effective blitzer.
Last season might have been the career break Robert Francois was waiting for, as he was the first to step in for Jones in Week 5 following Jones' hamstring injury, but by game's end, Francois had torn his Achilles, was out for the year and is now headed for free agency.
Likewise, rookie seventh-round pick Sam Barrington saw minimal playing time before a season-ending hamstring injury, but having been introduced to the playbook, he could be a prospect to watch. Late-season pickup Victor Aiyewa played strictly on special teams down the stretch.