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Quickness Is the New Paradigm for Packers’ Edge Rushers

Aaron Rodgers and Anthony Barr 2018

Aaron Rodgers (12) and Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr (55) talk after the game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Packers LB Clay Matthews

Clay Matthews (52) looks across the line before the snap against the Los Angeles Rams during the first quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

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!

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Rob Born

Someone else said it first but I popularized it: “Athleticism is important in athletic pursuits.” It took three years, but the Packers finally listened. My new mantra: “Trading down is fine, but never trade up.”

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15 Comments

  1. Andrew Lloyd Peth March 11, 2019

    Excellent article. Well laid out.

    I think we should remember another wild card in all this: Kendall Donnerson. He was drafted solely as a project, and yet Gute thought so much of him that he moved Donnerson to the 53-man roster rather than leave him exposed on the practice squad. That says something.

    Of course, we still need to draft one or two more, and draft them high. But Fackrell and Donnerson at least provide some hope at edge on the current roster.

    Reply
  2. Jason Parker March 11, 2019

    Rob is like Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen was a waste of his talent but we sure are glad to have him.

    Reply
  3. Cheese March 11, 2019

    For the production Graham has made in GB vs the money he’s getting paid he does cost a fortune. If you sign any of these pass rushers for big money and they actually back it up with quality play then it’s a much better deal than Graham.

    Wow, Kampman had 37 sacks in three years. I can’t imagine that happening now, and it was probably the last time this team has had anyone do that. Unless Fackrell keeps up his current pace or they draft some monster at OLB I don’t see anyone outdoing Kampman anytime soon.

    Reply
    1. Kato March 11, 2019

      He was one of my favorite packers. Stand up dude, went out and played hard.

      1. PF4L March 11, 2019

        Yea….Graham did, and will cost a fortune. Matter of fact, he’s getting rewarded with an additional 5 million in 4 days. Why you ask?….The fuck if i know.

        Kampan was a boss. Another one of those guys who you’re proud as F they wore the green and gold.

        I met Kampan and Tauscher back in the day. I was a guest of Steve “Sparky” Fifer back when he was producing Homers sports talk show on TMJ radio..

  4. Kato March 11, 2019

    Man, if the packers do indeed trade for Dee Ford, what a fail. That would make next to no sense after failing to land Mack. You will be paying Ford (a nice player for sure) nearly as much as Mack and giving valuable draft capital. Ford is not the player Mack is.

    Reply
    1. Big B March 11, 2019

      Absolutely- can’t pay big bucks for Ford AND give up draft capital. If you’re committed to paying for a pass rusher then it’s got to be a FA.
      Kampman got caught in the undertow of the conversion from 4-3 to 3-4; great guy, great player, but miscast in that new role. I wondered why the Packers never traded him as he wasn’t an OLB but should have had a lot of interest as a quality DE.
      Peter King’s FMIA today profiles the abysmal drafting of the Giants using the metric of players on the roster from rounds 1-3 in the 2010-16 drafts; they have just 2 compared with most teams at 8-9. Packers are down near that bottom. In retrospect, TT had it going on for the first part of his tenure but then dropped off markedly for the second half. PF4L is right, Murphy needed to intervene much, much sooner. Viva La Rebuild.

  5. MJ March 11, 2019

    Good article, Rob. One of the points you made raised my interest in particular. You said that 4-3 DEs age better than 3-4 OLBs. Then, a side effect of fielding a 4-3 would be that you will find a greater pool of veteran DEs that will have not decayed too much, and at the same time do not break the bank. Kind of a long term concept, but aligned with maximizing performance out of the fixed salary cap (a topic that we came to discuss a couple of times now). All the best to you, Rob.

    Reply
  6. PF4L March 11, 2019

    I’d like to see “Not running the team into the ground” as the new paradigm. but that’s just me.

    Eddie Van Halen was God back in his day. A couple decades of good music. I can’t call that a waste of talent, but that’s just me.

    Reply
    1. PF4L March 11, 2019

      1. PF4L March 11, 2019

        Sorry Jason, i just wanted to link it.

  7. Kato March 11, 2019

    The redskins are going to regret that Landon Collins contract so much. Thank God the packers didn’t do that

    Reply
    1. Stiggy March 11, 2019

      All the plebes on reddit were clamoring for the amazing hhcd to come back.

      I was downvoted in to oblivion for suggesting hes awful. Gonna have fun linking the Redskins contract for him .

  8. Deepsky March 11, 2019

    I just want to point out that we wish and hope for an outside linebacker to get us to the Super Bowl, but there is not one New England Patriot player on this list and they seem to have won a few Super Bowls.

    Reply
  9. Bobby d March 11, 2019

    Slow down you say? Fuck you with this bullshit site

    Reply

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