Quickness Is the New Paradigm for Packers’ Edge Rushers
It wasn’t so long ago, at least not for this septuagenarian, that the term “edge rusher” didn’t even exist in football parlance. We had nose tackles, defensive tackles, and defensive ends. All had “sacking the quarterback” in their job descriptions. All were huge, and almost all were slow.
Packers fans are used to the 3-4 alignment: three down linemen, two outside linebackers, and two inside linebackers. For years the Packers have relied on the OLBs to be the predominant pass rushers. It might surprise many to know that the majority of the league relies on the defensive ends, positioned in a 4-3 alignment, to be the primary pass rushers.
I believe the 3-4 teams are: GB, CHI, LAR, NYG, WSH, DET, NYJ, PIT, DEN, TEN, HOU, BAL, and KC. Since only the first six are NFC teams, the majority of Green Bay’s opponents feature 4-3 defenses. I think the Bears switched over to 3-4 in 2015 and the Lions in 2018.
I took a look at the top five NFL edge rushers, based on number of sacks, over the past four years. Counting ties, there were 17 such players. Thirteen of them are listed as defensive linemen. Most of them are large – not what 3-4 Green Bay defense looks for in an edge rusher. In some cases, teams switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense throughout the game, which muddies the analytical waters.
Eight of these 17 top edge rushers weigh 270 pounds or more:
Chris Jones – 310#, 6’6”
Calais Campbell – 300#, 6’8”
J.J. Watt – 295#, 6’5”
Cameron Jordan – 287#, 6’4”
Aaron Donald – 285#, 6’1”
Carlos Dunlop – 280#, 6’6”
Ezekiel Ansah – 275#, 6’6”
Everson Griffen – 273#, 6’3”
The other five top edge rushers who are designated as linemen are:
Chandler Jones – 265#, 6’5”
DeMarco Lawrence – 265#, 6’3”
Markus Golden – 260#, 6’3”
Danielle Hunter – 252#, 6’5”
Vic Beasley, Jr. – 246#, 6’3”
That leaves four top edge rushers who are designated as OLBs:
Ryan Kerrigan (Redskins) – 259#, 6’4”
Kahlil Mack (Bears) – 252#, 6’3”
Von Miller (Broncos) – 250#, 6’3”
Lorenzo Alexander (Bills) – 245#, 6’1”
I’d say Kahlil Mack is currently vying with Von Miller for the title of “prototypical OLB edge rusher.”
Another thing that strikes me is how hard it is to stay near the top of the list of sack leaders. From 2015 to 2018, only four of the 17 were in the top five more than once, and none did so in consecutive years: J.J. Watt, 2015 and 2018; Chandler Jones, 2015 and 2017; Von Miller 2016 and 2018; and Danielle Hunter, 2016 and 2018. The reason: you get a reputation and you get double teamed.
When it comes to age, a number of these edge rushers are 30 years or older, but they tend to be those playing defensive end on 4-3 alignment teams. The OLB edge rushers have a tendency to lose their quickness, and therefore have shorter careers, than do the big defensive ends.
Packers’ Edge Rusher Specs
The Packers are looking for edge rushers with OLB-type bodies. Let’s rule out the thought that the Packers would go after anyone over 260 pounds – whether via free agency, trade, or draft. That eliminates guys like Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt. The Packers need a couple of OLBs who are from 245 to 260 pounds. Nick Perry is too big and slow to be a consistently effective OLB edge rusher in the 3-4 alignment.
If Green Bay goes after an OLB in free agency, they should be after someone who they can utilize for more than a couple of years.
Julius Peppers, who played for the Packers at 295 pounds, didn’t fit the above parameters – but he got away with it because he was simply one of the most gifted physical specimens in the history of the NFL.
The 3-4 alignment seems to rely more on a team approach to getting to the quarterback. If so, then two OLBs who consistently get about a half dozen sacks per year would work for me. Last season the Packers managed to register 44 sacks as a team, eighth best in the league, despite getting only five total sacks from Matthews and Perry.
A combination of quickness and agility seem to be the keys to an OLB excelling as an edge rusher. This would help explain the sudden success of lanky Kyler Fackrell, who did a respectable 1.6110-yard split and his some quick moves. His arm length of 33 ¼”, 77th percentile for a linebacker, is also a useful asset.
While Matthews has filled one of the two Packers’ edge rusher slots for ten years, the team has had little success in manning the other slot or obtaining good backup OLBs. They’ve tried Reggie Gilbert (2 years, 3.5 sacks), Vince Biegel, NFL veteran Ahmad Brooks (1 year, 1.5 sacks), Jayrone Elliott (3 seasons, 4 sacks), Datone Jones (too big at 285#, 4 years, 9 sacks), and Jamari Lattimore (too small at 230#, 3 years, 1 sack). They even tried to convert 294-pound Mike Neal to a 262-pound OLB – six years of futility.
Green Bay did have one other somewhat recent edge rusher who deserves a mention. Aaron Kampman was a combination DE/OLB who played here from 2001-09. He was a Round 5 pick in 2002 out of Iowa, and he was pretty big (6’4” 265#), but also agile and quick. He hit his stride from 2006 through 2008, when he recorded 37 sacks in just 3 years. Campman was named to two Pro Bowl and two All Pro teams while with Green Bay.
What happened to Clay Matthews?
When you’re speaking about edge rushers, 40-yard dash times are not the way to assess quickness. The “rush” we’re talking about is seldom more than ten yards, so you should be looking at 10-yard split times.
Clay was maybe the quickest (as opposed to the fastest) linebacker coming out of college in decades. At the 2009 NFL Combine, and then weighing 240 pounds, Clay covered 10 yards from a standstill in 1.49 seconds – that’s way faster than Sam Shields (1.52) or Jaire Alexander (1.56)!
The only others named so far in this post coming within a tenth of a second of Clay’s time are Kahlil Mack, at 1.53 and Danielle Hunter at 1.57. Clay’s superb quickness lasted about six years – 2014 was the last time he had a double-digit sack season. His body has aged beyond his years, and he clearly has lost much of his power too.
Free Agency Begins March 13
After the free agency period has mostly run its course, and the draft is approaching, I’ll revisit this topic. For now, it appears to me that the Packers are likeliest to expend their number 12 overall pick on Clay Matthews’ replacement. The top OLBs on track to be free agents in a few days, roughly in order of most to least talented, include: Anthony Barr (Vikings), Ezekiel Ansah (Lions), Preston Smith (Redskins), Za’Darius Smith (Ravens), Derrick Morgan (Titans), Markus Golden (Cardinals), and Dante Fowler (Rams).
Assuming the Packers want a guy with maybe four seasons left in him, that eliminates Ansah and Morgan. Fowler is a certified criminal. I’d say the decent and realistic OLB free agent prospects for the Packers are Barr, the two Smiths, and Golden.
Dee Ford would have topped the list, but the Chiefs put the franchise tag on him on March 2. The Packers are still said to be interested in trading for him, but I don’t see that happening.
How much would a top-notch edge rusher cost? Demarcus Lawrence has been franchise tagged at $20.5M, Frank Clark at $17.1M, Jadeveon Clowney (top overall pick in 2014) at $15.9M, and Dee Ford at $15.4M – only Ford, however, fits the OLB model.
And we thought Jimmy Graham cost a fortune!