2018 Position Preview - Packers OLBs Need Help
Doing more with less is a common business productivity trope, but it’s been something more than that for the Packers over the past two offseasons, at least as far as their outside linebacker group has been concerned.
While the rest of the league has relied more and more on waves of athletic rushers at a variety of positions up front, the Packers have actually invested fewer resources in their edge pass rushers, adding only Vince Biegel and Kendall Donnerson to the group via the draft and Ahmad Brooks via free agency.
Biegel was a non-factor during his rookie season while Brooks battled back issues and age-related entropy on his way to his least productive season in a decade. Donnerson, meanwhile, is as raw a prospect as the Packers could have selected, a defensive counterpart to Jeff Janis, the now-entirely-legendary seventh-round pick who dominated his small-school competition with dazzling athleticism but couldn’t translate his game to the NFL.
All of this would be a little bit less concerning if the productivity at the top of the depth chart was a little more reliable. Though sack numbers belie the true output of both Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the baseline for both is neither gets to the quarterback as often as their paychecks would indicate they should. With both of them likely to miss time at some point this season (as is their wont), the Packers have a lot of questions at outside linebacker and very few answers.
Just the basics
Clay Matthews - 6-3, 255 - USC - 10th season
Nick Perry - 6-3, 265 - USC - 7th season
Vince Biegel - 6-3, 246 - Wisconsin - 2nd season
Reggie Gilbert - 6-3, 261 - Arizona - 1st season
Kyler Fackrell - 6-5, 245 - Utah State - 3rd season
Chris Odom - 6-4, 262 - Arkansas State - 2nd season
Kendall Donnerson - 6-3, 249 - Southeast Missouri - Rookie
Naashon Hughes - 6-3, 259 - Texas - Rookie
CJ Johnson - 6-2, 226 - East Texas Baptist - Rookie
Greer Martini - 6-3, 232 - Notre Dame - Rookie
Who needs to be good?
While Clay Matthews embodies nearly every stereotype of an aging star hoping to post one last great season in a contract year, Nick Perry is just 28 and in the midst of a five-year, $59 million deal signed with the Packers in 2017. By all accounts, it’s he, not Matthews, that should be the headlining pass rusher in Green Bay. But he’s not. Perry has never been consistent enough to take the lead from Matthews or even operate as his equal. But if the Packers are going to get anything out of their pass rush this year, they need Perry to be both healthy and productive, two qualities that have been aggravatingly rare throughout his career.
Who is the wild card?
Foot injuries are a tough break (pun not intended) for any athlete, and their mysterious recovery cycles make them even tougher for outsiders to gauge. Suffice it to say, Biegel’s injuries last year derailed his entire season, though it should be noted that the Packers were well out of contention by the time he was truly well enough to contribute in any meaningful sense. The bottom line is Biegel barely played last year, and as a result, it’s hard to know what the Packers have in him. He tested well at the combine and was productive setting the table for T.J. Watt at Wisconsin, but beyond that, Biegel is a man of mystery, one on whom the Packers will be counting in a significant way this year.
Who could be a sleeper?
Reggie Gilbert talked for several years about how hard it was to make the transition from hand-on-the-ground pass rusher to stand up pass rusher, but when he finally figured it out, the results spoke for themselves. He produced a sack and two tackles in just 86 defensive snaps last year.
This season, Chris Odom is in year two of the same transition. A productive hand-down pass rusher in college, Odom was thrown into the fire in Green Bay when the Packers picked him up off waivers in final cuts, forcing him to learn essentially a new position on the fly while on an active NFL roster. He clearly hadn’t mastered it throughout last season, making no meaningful impact on the Packers’ fortunes throughout 2017. With a year of experience at his new position, perhaps Odom can make a bigger contribution this season.