Packers Outside Linebackers: This is a group that had a lot of promise heading into 2o12 but after an injury to rookie Nick Perry and an underwhelming season from 2011 incumbent Erik Walden, there wasn’t nearly as much production as the defense needed nor wanted. The Green Bay Packers enter the 2013 offseason with some questions at this vital position.
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Where are we now:
Here are the current suspects:
Clay Matthews III (1st round)
Nick Perry (1st round)
Erik Walden (UDFA)
Dezman Moses (UDFA)
Frank Zombo (UDFA)
Jamari Lattimore (UDFA)
Matthews was, once again, the steady rock of this group. He had has second-best season, posting 13 sacks despite missing several games with a hamstring injury. Not much more can be said of Matthews other than he makes the entire Packers defense better and he has to be a top priority of the team to retain when his contract expires at the end of the 2013 season.
Perry had high expectations after being drafted in the first round. He showed some flash early in the season but was shelved after just six games due to an injured wrist ligament that required surgery. It’s hard to say what Perry’s impact would have been but the team will enter the 2013 season program with him slated to start at left outside linebacker.
Walden stepped in as the starter when Perry went down and played very marginally. He missed the first game due to a suspension for an off-field incident during the 2011 season. After that, he posted two interceptions and a handful of sacks, but he was largely ineffective in games thata mattered most. He was virtually non-existent during the playoffs and is now an unrestricted free agent. He is likely low on the Packers list of priorities to bring back, if even at all.
Moses is another undrafted free agent who made a splash during the 2012 OTA’s and training camp. He earned a roster spot and platooned with Walden and Zombo when Perry and Matthews were injured. He wasn’t very flashy and while he surely be in training camp this season, his roster spot is all but locked in.
Zombo had another disappointing season that was marred by injury. He started the season on the physically unable to perform list and returned late in the season in a back up role. He made no impact on the defense and was not active during the postseason. Zombo is an unrestricted free agent. He may be signed to the bare minimum and invited back to training camp to push others, but I don’t expect him back in green & gold next season.
Lattimore was a special teams player. He came on late in training camp and made some plays in the exhibition games but did not see many snaps with the defense in 2012. He should be back in 2013 and he will get a shot to earn some more reps in the base 3-4 but he will need to have a very solid offseason to crack the lineup.
Where we want to be:
22 of the Packers 47 team sacks came from the OLB position in 2012. While the team did improve its pass rush from a horrific 2011 effort, it still wasn’t enough. Matthews led the team with 13 sacks with the next highest total of the group being four by Moses. Perry had two before his injury and obviously it’s impossible to say how many he would have had in a full season.
Needless to say, the Packers will need to continue to improve the performance of this group in 2013. Green Bay will face some of the league’s top quarterbacks next season. They will get another crack at San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and will see Washington’s Robert Griffin III for the first time. They also face Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and New York’s Eli Manning. Keeping both pressure and contain on these passers will be a key to the team’s success.
Pro Football Focus’ Michael Renner put it best when looking at this position for the Packers in 2013:
“At first I didn’t want to include this position as a free agent need because of Nick Perry’s impending return. Then I watched Erik Walden run downfield in pursuit of an empty-handed LaMichael James and I realized this situation has to be addressed.”
The postseason exposed just how vulnerable this position is for the Packers in moving forward. While losing a playoff game is never a good thing, the silver lining is that the way in which the team lost may prompt General Manager Ted Thompson to revisit his acquisition strategy. It’s clear that there is more needed from this key area to keep the defense moving in the right direction.
The team has not yet made a decision on whether to bring back Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers or look elsewhere. With the personnel that the team currently has, I would be surprised to see them switch out of the 3-4 scheme. Should they bring in a new coordinator, there could be a shake up in terms of who is in training camp pushing for a roster spot.
How do we get there?
Notice that the current OLB’s on this team are either first round picks or undrafted free agents. That’s quite a disparity in talent and the team needs to close that gap. With the new league year approaching and the draft over two months away, there are a few avenues the team can utilize to give this area a boost.
The first is free agency. The league year begins on March 12th at 4 p.m. EDT. As we know, Ted Thompson is not a big player in free agency and I don’t expect him to make any sort of splash this year. Still there are a few names out there worth looking at.
Of the free agent names that are out there and who have six or fewer years in the league, the following names stuck out to me: Anthony Spencer, Paul Kruger and Antwan Barnes. There are others, but these three stood out. Spencer and Kruger, I expect to be back with the teams they have been with. In Spencer’s case, that is the Dallas Cowboys and losing him would be a huge blow to a defense that cannot afford anything of the sort.
Kruger likely set himself up for a nice payday after a good showing in the postseason and Super Bowl. The Ravens likely have Kruger high on their priority list and he won’t come cheap. Even if Baltimore decides to let him test the market, Kruger stands to get a decent payday. He would likely be too expensive for Thompson’s typical taste.
That leaves Barnes. Barnes has not had a chance to play full time in San Diego but has done well as a role player. He will likely be looking for an opportunity to start, which he would not seemingly have in Green Bay. But given who Barnes is, which is to say a proven entity, as well as the type of money he is likely to garner, could make him a viable option for Thompson to explore.
Some of the top OLB prosepcts in this year’s draft are Bjoern Werner (Florida State), Jarvis Jones (Georgia), Damontre Moore (Texas A&M), Dion Jordan (Oregon), Barkevious Mingo (LSU) and Sam Montgomery (LSU). With the Packers picking in the mid 20’s, some of these players will be off the board. But let’s not forget the success Thompson has had in round two of the draft. He has traded up the past few years to get after some value and landed Randall Cobb and Casey Hayward as a result. One of these names could force Thompson to go this route versus pure need come April’s draft.
Last but not least, there is undrafted free agency. Packers fans all know how skillful Thompson has been in fiding some gems in this talent pool. Sam Shields is the most shining example on the current roster. I expect there to be at least one or two players on the 2013 team that come from this area. It’s impossible to say who won’t be drafted at this point so I have no names to throw out there, but this is just another avenue that we can all be intrigued by.
In closing, I can say that the OLB position is one that needs some changes heading into next season, regardless of how it’s accomplished. If the team goes into 2013 with the same players they had last sesaon, it’s going to be a big step backwards for the defense and I’m confident that the team knows this.
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Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: