Should the Packers Bring Back Clay Matthews on a One-Year Deal?
Clay Matthews is — or maybe was — an icon in Green Bay.
At his peak, he was one of the two or three best defenders the Packers have had since Reggie White and he was a key part of the 2010 Super Bowl run. He has been a legitimate star in Green Bay for a long time, and he’s been compensated handsomely for that.
Clay Matthews pocketed over $11 million last season, the final year of the five-year extension he signed before the 2013 season, and it’s clear he’s no longer the player he once was.
The last time Matthews recorded more than ten sacks in a season, Matt LaFleur was a quarterbacks coach for Notre Dame, Ron Wolf was yet to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the 49ers were led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and head coach Jim Harbaugh.
But as the Packers continue to rebuild their defense, it’s possible Matthews may have a role. The cupboard is pretty bare at edge rusher right now, and even if they add some pieces through the draft, the Packers can use all the help they can get.
Matthews certainly won’t command the salary he once did and he wasn’t entirely ineffective in 2018. With that in mind, should the Packers bring him back on a one year deal to help bridge the gap between the defense they are and the defense they want to be?
Gary says: Yes, the Packers should sign Clay Matthews
The best way I can answer this question is to break it into two sections – how the Packers should use Clay Matthews and the value of a one-year contract.
How the Packers should use Clay Matthews: It’s unrealistic to expect Matthews to be the player he was early in his career. He found success using his superior athleticism to overpower opponents, but honed his craft as he aged to remain useful as a pass rusher.
As Matthews nears the end of his career, the Packers have tried to transitioned him into a situational pass rusher. In 2016 and 2017, Matthews was on the field for 55 percent of the Packers’ defensive snaps. Injuries on defense forced Mike Pettine to play Matthews more than they would have liked. In 2018, that number climbed to 71 percent.
The Packers played Julius Peppers on 66 percent of snaps in his three years, a figure that represents the ceiling for Matthews.
The value of a one-year contract: Jon’s breakdown on one-year contracts from last offseason is worth reading (or re-reading) here. Matthews – like all players – wants to sign a contract for as many years and as much guaranteed money as possible. One-year contracts were underutilized by Ted Thompson, but Brian Gutekunst has been willing to take the risk.
Matthews’ value is higher to the Packers than other teams because of his intangibles – he’s a locker room leader, and he knows Pettine’s defensive scheme. If he’s willing to sign a one-year contract, I believe it would be one of Gutekunst’s best possible moves to strengthen the pass rush.
Timing is important. Two-thirds of the league will have over $20 million in available cap space, and the top free agent pass rushers like Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence, Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney, and Kansas City’s Dee Ford are expected to be given the franchise tag by their respective teams – making them unavailable this offseason.
A team looking for a pass rusher through free agency can easily fall in love with Matthews, because he’s an easy sell to ownership and their fan base. Over the last three seasons, Matthews has played 46 of the Packers’ 51 games. Both his father, Clay Jr., and his uncle, Bruce, played 19 seasons.
I doubt Matthews will sign a one-year contract with the Packers or any other team. Much like Jordy Nelson last offseason, Matthews will likely get a second year from another team. It’ll be strange to watch the luscious locks of number 52 roam the line of scrimmage for another team, but it’s just the way this league works.
Jon says: No, the Packers shouldn’t sign Clay Matthews
There are two key questions you should ask about every free agent: what are you getting and how will you use him.
In Clay Matthews, the Packers are getting a player in decline. We track a metric called Production Ratio that measures the impact plays (sacks and tackles for loss) a pass rusher makes against the number of games he plays. For example, Kyler Fackrell had 10.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss in 16 games this year, giving him a Production Ratio of 1.41. A quality starter should be in that ballpark, and a very good to elite player should have a ratio of 1.5 or higher.
Here is how Clay Matthews’s Production Ratio has trended over his career:
Matthews hasn’t been above 1.5 since 2014 and finally fell off a cliff in 2018, posting a PR of just 0.66. That’s not to say there haven’t been things that he’s done well over the last few seasons, even if the stats aren’t there. But it’s just a plain fact that he’s not producing at the level he used to.
That he has declined is not an indictment of Matthews. Aging players decline. That’s how aging works. But it does give me significant pause as far as the second question: how will the Packers use him?
Players in decline can still be useful, but if Matthews can’t be useful (or, even if he can be useful, productive) as a pass rusher, what do the Packers do? They could play him more inside, but Blake Martinez is already there, Antonio Morrison is fine (if limited), and Oren Burks should be ready to take a step next season.
Even if Matthews is an improvement over Morrison and Burks, that’s not a very compelling case. Inside linebacker hasn’t been a priority for the Packers in a long time, and if it’s going to become one now, selling Matthews as a slight improvement over Morrison and Burks doesn’t move the needle for me. If I’m Brian Gutekunst, I will thank Matthews for his very good Packers career, take a moment to remember when it was time, and look to spend my cap space elsewhere.