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Pass rush a draft priority for Packers

Kyler Fackrell’s development another key at outside linebacker for 2017


This is the seventh in a series of stories that's examining the Packers' roster, position by position, leading up to the 2017 draft. The series continues with the linebackers.

GREEN BAY – The Packers need to find reinforcements on the edge in this draft.

Green Bay managed to keep outside linebackers Nick Perry and Jayrone Elliott by re-signing them as pending free agents, but the departures of Julius Peppers and Datone Jones leave the Packers too thin at pass-rusher, a position they prefer to have a deep rotation to keep players fresh and withstand the inevitable injuries that will hit.

The 2017 draft is reportedly full of pass-rush prospects, both in the early and middle rounds, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Packers stock up with multiple picks on the edge.

Kyler Fackrell, a third-round choice in 2016, is the only edge-rusher the Packers have drafted in the last two years, another reason the time is now to invest the draft capital necessary to help the pass rush in the present and future.

The veteran mainstay, of course, is Clay Matthews, who will be entering his ninth season, coming off a second straight year of single-digit sacks, the first such two-year stretch of his career.

While playing a lot of inside linebacker was a big reason Matthews recorded just 6½ sacks in 2015, injuries were the culprit last season. He missed four games to hamstring problems and played the final nine games (including playoffs) with a banged-up shoulder in recording a career-low five sacks, plus one in the postseason.

Perry's new contract was the reward for his best year, a 12-sack effort that included his seventh career postseason sack. He missed two games with a broken hand, and then played the final two regular-season contests and all three playoff games with a club cast, but still remained productive.

Elliott has been mostly a special-teams leader through his first three NFL seasons but will look to get more involved on defense, where he's flashed pass-rush ability in the past.

Fackrell appeared to be coming on as a rookie just when a hamstring injury hit, so the hope is his two sacks in 2016 were barely a start. Reggie Gilbert is a practice-squad holdover who came to Green Bay last year as an undrafted rookie from Arizona.

The guy who will continue to move around the defensive formation is Matthews, but Head Coach Mike McCarthy has given no indication he'll be taking on the inside linebacker responsibilities to the extent he did in 2014-15.

That's primarily because the Packers have fortified the middle over the past couple of years, selecting Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez in the fourth round of the last two drafts.

Their development, along with that of former undrafted free agent Joe Thomas, has given the Packers a workable rotation amongst their run-stoppers, with safety Morgan Burnett also moving into a linebacker role on passing downs.

Additionally, the Packers re-signed special-teamer Jordan Tripp, an inside linebacker by trade, and have developmental prospect Derrick Mathews returning from his late-season stint on the practice squad.

Drafting an inside linebacker for the third straight year is entirely likely in an attempt to continue upgrading and deepening that spot, but outside linebacker is the much bigger priority – perhaps the biggest priority in this draft for Green Bay.


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