2015 Packers Position Group Analysis – Outside Linebackers

Overview: When I look at this group of players, it’s quite shocking to see that it comprises three first round draft picks and one second round pick. While the Packers’ outside linebackers are no slouches, you’d expect a little more punch from those levels of draft picks. That said, it’s hard to get too down on a position group that won a Super Bowl with the likes of Erik Walden and Frank Zombo.

 

Where We Are Now

Here are the current suspects:

  • Julius Peppers (1st round, 2002)
  • Clay Matthews (1st round, 2009)
  • Mike Neal (2nd round, 2010)
  • Nick Perry (1st round, 2012)
  • Nate Palmer (6th round, 2013)
  • Andy Mulumba (Undrafted, 2013)
  • Jayrone Elliott (Undrafted, 2014)
  • Adrian Hubbard (Undrafted, 2014)

 

Julius Peppers: Julius Peppers has been a good player to kickstart the defensive fire, but just like any good fire starter, he is merely a short-term solution. His cap number blows up this year to $12 million, the third highest on the roster. There is no doubt he was an impact player this year, but will his performance live up to his contract? And with all their other needs, will the Packers be able to keep him without restructuring the deal? Unfortunately, cutting him outright will still leave $5 million on the books in dead money.

Clay Matthews: Ahh, Matthews. He is the fiery china doll that always leaves fans wanting just a little bit more. He is perhaps the best football player on the defensive side of the ball, but for some reason we’re never fully satisfied with his performance. We’ve been asking for a capable bookend for years to let him shine more, and yet now that we got it in Peppers, Matthews was pulled to shore up the catastrophic weakness at ILB. So the big question remains: is he keeping himself from true greatness, or is it the players around him?

Mike Neal, Nick Perry: Neal and Perry get lumped together, because they fill similar roles on this defense. Even though Neal is more of an “elephant” player and Perry more of a true OLB, they are meant to be run stoppers who can simply outmuscle their way towards pressuring the quarterback. As high draft picks, they both have fallen short of their original expectations, but they remain solid players that the defense needs.

Nate Palmer: An unfortunate MCL tear ended Palmer’s season this year, but there’s still hope that he can become a contributor for this team. Expectations have fallen since draft day, and he may never turn out to be more than a special teams star; nevertheless, Palmer will get his chance to rebound in the offseason program.

Andy Mulumba, Jayrone Elliott, Adrian Hubbard: These undrafted linebackers will be looking to fight their way onto the roster next year. Elliott, being the latest star of the group, will have the early lead; however, Mulumba is looking to reclaim his spotlight after an ACL tear ended his season early. Hubbard has the farthest to climb, and chances are he won’t be more than a warm body come training camp.

 

Where We Want to Be

The Good News: The OLB group is heads above the ILB group. If we are worrying about our linebackers, it’s not going to be the ones on the outside.

The Bad News: Someone is going to need to step up in the future. Matthews does better when he has good help, but Peppers won’t be around forever, and maybe not even for this next season.

We obviously want the OLB corps to be a dominating force, but let’s put this into realistic terms. Clay Matthews is the shining star of the group, and his contract will keep him the shining star through 2016. Peppers could prove useful for another season, but the team needs to look long-term right now. Perry and Neal aren’t likely the answer, though they will be good contributors.

 

How Do We Get There?

Green Bay needs to keep looking at potentials in late rounds and snatch an impact player in the draft if presented with one. Their biggest concerns right now are in the middle of the defense with the ILB and DL. Frankly, they’d be doing themselves a disservice to emphasize taking an OLB over either one of those two groups, unless they have no other logical choice. Within the next two drafts and undrafted signings, the Packers need to find a player they can either groom into a playmaker over one or two offseasons. Luckily, Elliott and Mulumba give them some breathing room, because neither have reached their ceiling yet.

In the meantime, Peppers’ contract needs to be restructured. His $12 million cap hit would have been worth it a few years ago in his prime, but he’s simply not a consistent force. He makes big plays, but in between he can tend to become invisible. Freeing up some cap space not only fits his current talent level, but also opens up money to extend other important free agents on the team. All of that said, if it were between keeping his contract as is and having to let Peppers go, I personally believe the team needs to keep him. He’s an X-factor for this defense, and the financial cost would be worth it if they end up making a Super Bowl appearance.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • Since ’61

    Chad – I agree that this position is in better shape than ILBs but not necessarily for long. And after 2016 this position group may be as bad off as the ILBs. CM3 will likely be slowing down, Peppers will be done, leaving us with Neal and Perry assuming they remain healthy. The good news is that Neal and Perry did a better job of holding the edge in 2014 than 2013. Hopefully, they will both continue to improve. While OLB is not a priority need for 2015, I totally agree that the Packers need to continue to look for some depth at least via the draft and FAs. Again drafting late (usually 25 or higher) in the early rounds does not help in terms of picking a high impact player during the draft. So it’s either FA or the draft and develop route for this position. Thanks, Since ’61

  • packett

    I think we had sufficiently good outside linebackers , but their production was in part limited by poor Dline push up the middle, so quarterbacks can simply step up into the pocket. Secondly poor ILB, because opposing quarterbacks always found easy dump-off passes in the short middle before OLBs could get the sack. So solutions are systemic, and its imperative to get maximum impact players at ILB and DT, and worth reaching at 1st and 2nd picks to get the best players at those 2 positions and even forego BPA. Ripple effect to other position groups will be big (as we saw from C-Matt filling that gap mid season. I would like to see one FA too.

  • Taryn Miller

    The OLB position is like Chinese food…always looks good to the eyes but is never really filling….Reason I never have it as a meal but as a small appetizer….This OLB group is an appetizer for other offenses.

  • dobber

    They’ve already moved Carl Bradford inside , and maybe they like him enough there to give him a realistic shot come OTAs (who else will play next to Barrington at that point?). The other possibility could be to audition Palmer or Hubbard inside as well, although none of those three is likely to be athletic enough to give them the coverage option they need from the inside group.

    In the end, once you get past CMIII and Peppers, this is another group of JAGs. It’s a good thing the Packers have CMIII and Peppers…

    • TedTomsin

      Glad you mentioned Bradford. I have an inkling about this guy. They moved him from outside to inside in that final preseason game and did pretty well. Well enough to where the Packers are going to give him an opportunity to compete this season. If I am him and am looking at the depth at inside he has to know it’s up for grabs. I hope he’s working his ass off learning the inside all this offseason and comes back on fire. The starter could very well likely be either him or whoever they draft.
      As for outside, we’re loaded. No worries even if they don’t retain Peppers. I see Elliot making another jump this second season.
      Ted

  • Tundraboy

    Hubbard looked like more than a warm body. He has NFL size and a lot more talent than others from what I saw, May be raw but he has a lot of upside

  • Thegreatreynoldo

    Chad – excellent evaluation. Wish I had written it except for one point: this draft is strong in edge rushers/OLBs. Pick to the strength of the draft. Don’t be afraid to take an OLB high. Looks to me like the sweet spot in this draft is rounds 2-4.

    You might have mentioned that in addition to the probable departure of Peppers after this season, Neal and Perry become FAs after this season. They can be re-signed, of course, and only Perry would get much increase (since he’s on his rookie contract – he looks like a $4, maybe $5 million/yr guy, roughly the same as Neal).