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.——————Follow @ChadToporski