On the Edge: Clay Matthews vs. Erik Walden
A week ago I cast out my lure, but only got a single bite. So today I’ll repeat myself and provide more detail: what about returning Erik Walden to the Green Bay Packers? I’ll even sweeten the deal: he can be the replacement for Clay Matthews.
Erik Walden – Strong and Steady
Walden has progressed from a borderline NFL player to a solid linebacker and edge rusher. He was a sixth-round pick of the Cowboys in 2008, bounced around with Kansas City and Miami, and was signed by Green Bay as a free agent in midseason in 2010. Walden is a sturdy and mobile 6’2” and 250 pounds. He’s got a Super Bowl ring with Green Bay’s name on it.
Walden played in nine games for the Packers in 2010. In 2011 and 2012, he started 24 games for the team, averaging 53 tackles, three sacks and 3.5 passes defended. Solid, not spectacular.
In 2013 he signed up with the Colts, for four years for $16 million. In that time, he started all but four games. He’s a durable and dependable 10-year veteran.
Walden turned in his best performance in 2016: 42 tackles, 11 sacks, three forced fumbles. In the past six years, he’s only been under 42 tackles once.
Should we be worried about Walden’s age, as he’ll turn 32 prior to the regular season? When a guy has his best year ever at age 31, I’m not real worried that his playing days are nearing an end. Walden took more than 70 percent of the defensive snaps last year, as well as a share of the special teams snaps. His performance is still on the upswing.
On March 10, the Colts signed up two free agent replacements: Jabaal Sheard (three years, $25.5 million) and John Simon (three years, $13.5 million) – so Walden won’t be returning to the Colts.
Walden isn’t getting a lot of attention as a free agent. He was said to be visiting the Titans on March 13, but there has been no further news on that possibility. It could be that Walden intends to use those 11 sacks as a springboard to a contract in the $6 million range. The Packers won’t pay that much, but I’d hope they would offer him $4 million yearly over the next two or three years. He’s a proven and solid player. No need for one of those one-year “prove-it” dalliances.
Clay Matthews – Declining and Injury-Prone
Mathews has had a career path the exact opposite of Walden. With his strong family pedigree, Clay III was a hit from the start in the NFL. One year behind Walden, Matthews was a Packers’ first-round pick in 2009. A starter for all eight years in Green Bay, Matthews’ height and weight of 6’3” and 255 pounds is ideal for an edge rusher.
In April 2013, Matthews signed a six-year contract for $69.73 million – becoming the highest paid linebacker in league history. In 2017, he’s slated to make $10.1 million, in 2018 $10.4 million, and he would become a free agent in 2019. As commenters have pointed out, this works out to around $2 million per sack.
In 2014, the Packers started alternating Matthews between inside and outside linebacker. This dramatically improved the Packers’ defense, though it took away from Matthews’ sack totals.
His claim to fame is his pass rush. He’s recorded double-digit sack totals four times, but over the last two years combined he’s managed only 11.5. In those same two years, he has accumulated just one interception and six passes defended. Matthews has all but abandoned any run-stopping role, as he focuses solely, and many would say selfishly, on pass rushing
Matthews’ injury history has been mounting with each campaign. In 2012, he missed four games due to a hamstring strain – a condition he has battled off and on ever since. In 2013, he broke his thumb, twice, causing him to spend much of the year wearing a cast.
Last year, a hamstring injury took him out of the Lions game in week 3. That same injury cost him week 8-10. A separated shoulder, suffered in week 12, lingered and limited Matthews throughout the remainder of the season. He was a non-factor in the playoffs: three tackles and one sack in three games.
To Matthews’ credit, he has played his way through several injuries – sometimes to the detriment of allowing them to heal. He has also willingly switched positions for the good of the team.
Matthews has never been known for his run-stopping accomplishments. He’s recorded over 60 tackles just twice, with his high being 66 while playing inside linebacker in 2015. Much injured last year, his tackle total fell to 24 and his sack total to five. He played in just 48 percent of the Packers’ defensive snaps.
Though some question whether Matthews can still play at a high level, the primary issue is whether his level of play can justify his 2017 salary of just over $10 million – and a crazy cap hit of $15.1 million.
I feel that with a veteran like Walden on board, the Packers could justify releasing Matthews. I admit it would be a tough call – almost certainly too much for Ted Thompson. But it might benefit both parties, as Matthews seems to have hit a wall of sorts in Green Bay. Matthews has been criticized for being more interested in his TV commercials and an acting career than dedicating himself to football.
Better than a release, the Packers ought to be able to trade Matthews – $10 million isn’t as huge of a salary as it was in 2013. There are now two NFL teams in Los Angeles. Either one could benefit from the talent and star power Matthews brings, on and off the field. The Rams in particular could use Matthews, as they had only 31 sacks in 2016 (ranking 24th) and were led by a defensive tackle, Aaron Donald, with eight.
Finally, Matthews is now married and has two children. He resides in Southern California. He certainly won’t be settling down in Wisconsin. Spending his final playing years close to Hollywood would be the perfect way to transition from one career to the next.
Ted Thompson usually starts to get engaged in this phase of the free market – after most of the high rollers have spent their money. The window of opportunity to bring back Erik Walden is open now, but won’t last forever.