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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.

Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.



  1. Gort March 24, 2017

    Even when Matthews is on the field, he isn’t very effective. More than a game or 2 went by and he had big fat goose eggs for real stats (number of snaps isn’t a real stat). Maybe time to make it happen. Worst case is that he goes someplace else and suddenly becomes all-pro.

  2. Disposable H3ro March 24, 2017

    He’s free falling in terms of actual productivity on the field…cut bait on him and maybe TT can get a decent draft pick. Oh wait, that would take balls which he clearly doesn’t have.

  3. Big B March 25, 2017

    Clay Mathews should be embarassed being mentioned in the same sentence as Erik Walden, but facts are facts. Clay is basically on a lucrative one year prove it deal; he’ll play for the pay this year on that bloated salary (Sorry Rob, that makes him untradeable). His performance will dictate what happens in 2018, since the Packers could cut him then with no dead money and move on. A great year? Keep him on the payroll. I’d like to see the Pack make a play for Zach Brown as I still don’t see solutions at ILB.

  4. Howard March 25, 2017

    Matthews production is not close to the money he is making. Matthews future if he is interested in football rather than TV or movies is at ILB. Matthews would still be over paid and not the best in the NFL as an ILB, but he is a lot closer to a Kuechly than a Miller.

    Matthews is a ILB and if he wants to play another 4 or 5 years in the NFL and make an impact on the field and in his bank account Matthews needs to grab ahold of the ILB position. Sure Matthews can go outside some of the time, but at this point Matthews biggest impact for the defense will come at ILB.

    I don’t think TT could get anything for Matthews in a trade, but if the team is not going ask for a salary reduction, and that would probably result in releasing him. I think you put Matthews at ILB were he can have the most impact. To me in a 3-4 you need at least 3 linebackers that can make an impact, one of those can be a ILB. Make that Matthews. Then the question is who are the other OLBers that will step up? Perry had better be one.

    1. PF4L March 26, 2017

      I agree, put Clay at ilb, then sign Walden and play him outside.

  5. Sal1961 March 25, 2017

    Nobody will give anything for Mathews. He has hurt his value with bad production and always hurt…
    I believe Ted is going to keep Mathews with hopes that he can rejuvenate his career at the Inside LB spot. Clay at times lined up as a middle backer. I know one thing is for sure…. if he don’t restructure his contract, Ted will drop him instead of taking the cap hit.
    I would just release him, than pay Walden to replace mathews. Also sign either Zac Brown or Rey Maualuga who just got released by bengals. Either one will be an upgrade over j. Ryan.
    Martinez I hear the packers are high on him. Perhaps teaming Martinez up with either, would help Blake become a better backer.