GREEN BAY — Winston Moss was clearly irritated. With what? That was anyone’s guess.
Both times the Green Bay Packers longtime linebackers coach addressed reporters during the offseason program this spring, Moss glowered and was curt with his answers and. When asked why he was so perturbed, he wouldn’t say.
“I can’t help you,” Moss replied. “You ask a question, I’ll answer it.”
Perhaps — and to be clear, Moss never said this himself — some of the veteran coach’s less-than-cheerful disposition can be traced to the depth chart at outside linebacker, where the Packers did little to improve its options behind starters Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. If the two former first-round draft picks both stay fully healthy all season —something that the odds are against, given each of their injury histories —Moss’ crew should be fine; if Matthews and Perry miss any extended time, he and the Packers defense will be relying on largely unproven edge rushers with humble pedigrees and very little production heading into the season.
If that sounds familiar, one only needs to rewind to a year ago, when then-defensive coordinator Dom Capers admitted, “I think the biggest thing is our front two guys being able to stay healthy.”
Matthews (7.5 sacks) and Nick Perry (seven) weren’t able to do that last season. Although Matthews only missed two games — one with a groin injury and another with a hamstring injury — he missed parts of others with injuries, including a nagging knee injury that required minor postseason surgery. And while Perry played in 12 of the team’s 16 games, he broke his hand in Week 2 and played with a protective club cast for much of the season as a result. He also missed games with shoulder and ankle injuries, and like Matthews, missed all of the offseason practices.
Behind Matthews and Perry, the remaining outside linebackers on the roster — Kyler Fackrell (three), Ahmad Brooks (1.5), Reggie Gilbert (one), Vince Biegel (zero) and Chris Odom (zero) — had a combined 5.5 sacks.
“Obviously, you look at the depth at the outside linebacker position, and it’s not that great,” Matthews said following the draft, adding that he didn’t mean the remark as “a slight to the guys who are behind Nick and myself.”
But, he had a point. Despite Matthews’ and Perry’s injury histories, the team did not add an edge rusher until taking a seventh-round flyer on Southeast Missouri State’s Kendall Donnerson — having eschewed a chance to take Texas-San Antonio pass-rusher Marcus Davenport with the No. 14 overall pick in order to trade back and gain the New Orleans Saints’ 2019 first-round pick. After the draft, first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst explained that the way the draft fell, he wasn’t going to reach for an edge rusher just because of need.
“I don’t think it was a particularly great edge-rusher draft,” he said at the time. “It’d be nice to come out of every draft and feel like you filled all the holes that you think you have, but that’s never the case. So I think you try to take really good football players, because really you don’t know what your needs are going to be come September. I think we did that, and we stayed disciplined to the process and not try to get out of that.
“Hopefully, moving forward there’ll be opportunities, and we’ll see where that takes us.”
But at this point, it seems unlikely a legitimate pass-rusher will become available before the season begins, so the Packers probably will go with what they have. With that in mind, here’s a closer look at the linebacker position as the Packers prepare for training camp, which kicks off with its first practice on Thursday morning:
52 Clay Matthews: 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, age 32, 10th year from USC.
47 Jake Ryan: 6-2, 240, 26, fourth year from Michigan.
50 Blake Martinez: 6-2, 237, 24, third year from Stanford.
53 Nick Perry: 6-3, 265, 28, seventh year from USC.
51 Kyler Fackrell: 6-5, 245, 25, third year from Utah State.
45 Vince Biegel: 6-3. 246, 25, second year from Wisconsin.
93 Reggie Gilbert: 6-3, 261, 24, first year from Arizona.
42 Oren Burkes: 6-3, 233, 23, rookie from Vanderbilt.
98 Chris Odom: 6-4, 262, 23, second year from Arkansas State.
56 Ahmad Thomas: 6-0, 223, 23, first year from Oklahoma.
91 Kendal Donnerson: 6-3, 249, 22, rookie from SE Missouri St.
58 Greer Martini: 6-3, 232, 23, rookie from Notre Dame.
59 Marcus Porter: 6-0, 229, 21, rookie from Fairmont State.
54 CJ Johnson: 6-2, 226, 24, rookie from East Texas Baptist.
46 Naashon Hughes: 6-3, 259, 23, rookie from Texas.
49 Parris Bennett: 6-0, 233, 22, rookie from Syracuse.
Will Clay Matthews be revitalized under Mike Pettine?
Matthews, the Packers’ all-time leader in career sacks (80), has been to six Pro Bowls in his first eight seasons, and while last year might have been a down year for him (7.5 sacks), he still showed he can tilt the field at times – most notably with his overtime hit on DeShone Kizer in Cleveland, which not only prevented a touchdown but caused an interception that set up the game-winning touchdown. The problem is, that sort of thing hasn’t happened as frequently as it did in the past, leading to questions about Matthews’ future beyond this, the final year of his five-year, $66 million contract. Upon becoming defensive coordinator, Pettine vowed to use Matthews all over the field to create favorable matchups for him – which could help the 32-year-old return to his old form.
“The first thing that jumps out is his versatility. This is a guy that can play on the edge, he can rush inside,” Pettine said. “He’s had a good season playing inside linebacker (in 2014) and I’ve always believed in having those versatile, hybrid-type players for two reasons. One, a guy that can play multiple positions can give you depth so that if you have an injury ... and the other thing is, from an identification standpoint on the other side of the ball that they don’t clearly see, ‘He’s always this (same) position.’ When you have guys like that, the creative part, you can do a lot more with those players.”
On the rise
There’s really nowhere to go but up for Biegel, the former University of Wisconsin star who underwent corrective surgery on both feet after last year’s rookie orientation camp and never got his feet under him in his first season. Now, he’s had an entire offseason program to learn Pettine’s scheme, get practice reps and enter training camp healthy, which will allow him to participate in padded practices — all things he missed out on a year ago.
“That’s why I’m so excited about this upcoming season — to really get the bad taste out of my mouth from 2017 and really put a good stamp on the 2018 season and put together a season I know I can be proud of,” Biegel said. “I know my second year, going into it (with) the offseason preparation, being able to get into the system, is going to be huge for me.”
Player to watch
The Packers experimented with the concept of a hybrid safety/linebacker last season, using veteran safety Morgan Burnett as a quasi-inside linebacker in sub packages after then-rookie Josh Jones had a tough time juggling diverse responsibilities while also acclimating himself to the NFL. Pettine likes those hybrids, too, but his preference is to use linebackers who have safety-like speed and coverage skills but still have linebacker size. Enter Burks, a third-round pick from Vanderbilt who has a high football IQ, good athleticism and some history as a safety in college.
“He’s a smart guy, (but) he’s a smart guy that’s (still) learning the system, learning to be professional,” inside linebackers coach Patrick Graham said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what happens once the mental and the physical all tie in together and they get closer to each other and we see the complete football player.”
Outside linebacker rotation
Opportunity is clearly knocking for Fackrell, who is entering his third season but has yet to have an impact as a former third-round pick at a position sorely lacking proven depth. He’ll be battling Biegel, Odom and Gilbert, who flashed during a late-season call-up to the 53-man roster after two years on the practice squad. Playing extensively in the final two games of the season against Minnesota and Detroit after the Packers were eliminated from playoff contention, Gilbert registered four quarterback pressures and three quarterback hits on the Vikings’ Case Keenum and earned his first NFL sack against the Lions’ Matthew Stafford.
“You talk about a guy that has done everything and has taken advantage of every resource that’s been available to him. I mean, in my mind he’s already taken the second-year jump,” head coach Mike McCarthy said last month. “He’s a great example for these young players. He’s a great example for the (undrafted) free agents.”