Outside linebacker just might be the key to the Green Bay Packers’ offseason.
Of course, you want to say cornerback is the position of greatest need and we wouldn’t disagree, but the Packers’ defense is predicated on pressuring the quarterback. When they do that effectively, it forces bad plays, which in turn makes the subpar secondary look good. Whatever success the defense has (or doesn’t have) starts there.
That’s a problem right now.
The Packers’ best pass rusher, Nick Perry, is about to be a free agent. Perry turned in a team and career-high 11 sacks in 2016. He was the only Packer to record double digits in that category. That puts him at the top of our unrestricted free agent priority list.
Even if the Packers do re-sign Perry — and we expect them to — there are still plenty of other questions.
Datone Jones, Julius Peppers and Jayrone Elliott are also free agents. The first two are unrestricted and guess what.
We don’t expect either of them to be back.
Despite being given ample opportunity in 2016, Jones never flourished as an outside linebacker like we expected. Even if he does return on some bargain-basement deal, Jones has never recorded more than 3.5 sacks in a season. He had just one in 2016, despite playing more than 600 snaps. He’s not the answer.
Peppers turned in 7.5 sacks in 2016, but he’s 37 and has clearly lost a step. The Packers tried to keep him fresh for the stretch run, but he barely contributed in the playoffs. We would be immensely surprised if the Packers made Peppers an offer of any kind.
Then there’s Clay Matthews. Not only is he no longer living up to his enormous contract, he’s consistently injured and just turned in the worst season of his career. In 2016, Matthews generated a career-low five sacks. We have long said the best place for Matthews is at inside linebacker.
Not only does he stay healthy when he plays there, but he’s able to affect the game in more ways. Plus, that position is still a weak spot for the Packers.
So who rushes the passer for the Packers in 2017? They need more than Perry and Matthews, wherever he lines up, if they’re going to be effective defensively. Maybe Elliott will finally live up to his potential, although with just one sack in 2016, there’s been no sign that will be the case. Maybe Kyler Fackrell will make the jump in his second season.
The Packers simply can’t bet on Elliott and Fackrell plus Matthews staying healthy and returning to form.
We haven’t even talked about the possibility that they could lose Perry. That would be a disaster.
Even with Perry, the team needs to find a way to address the position this offseason and it needs to be a priority.
Everyone expects Perry to be signed for $10 million annually, but it might be more than that. Considering all of their question marks, Perry has all of the leverage.