While our 2009 wasn't as successful as it was for other teams, we saw enough to expect more success in 2010 and beyond. There's a lot to like about the Green Bay Packers going forward, unless of course you're cheering for the other team. But which players fit in the best? Which don't? Which ones are keepers, and which ones need to be driven out of town? It's time to look at who did well (and who didn't), and ultimately what their role will be going forward.
Ted Thompson doesn't trade up in the draft. He just doesn't. So when he made an agreement with New England that would send the Patriots a second-round pick and two thirds in exchange for the 26th overall pick, and he used that pick on an undersized walk-on who played a different position, some of us were left scratching our heads.
After all, we knew that the offensive line was an issue going forward. We had linebackers, more than we knew what to do with. Why give up three picks which could shore up some major weaknesses to take a player who arguably was a one-year wonder at USC?
If you lined up the stats of some of the league's well-known pass rushers, you would come up with something like this:
Player A: 57 tackles, 11.0 sacks
Player B: 79 tackles, 10.0 sacks
Player C: 42 tackles, 10.5 sacks
Player D: 41 tackles, 9.0 sacks
Player E: 43 tackles, 9.0 sacks
Interested in the identities of these mystery men? Here they are, in order: DeMarcus Ware, James Harrison, Julius Peppers, Joey Porter, and Mario Williams. Why would I include their 2009 numbers anonymously? Here's why:
Clay Matthews: 65 tackles, 10.0 sacks
Of this list, Matthews doesn't have the most tackles, sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries, or anything else. He leads the league in zero categories. But as far as Matthews' 2009 season is concerned, it's all about the company you keep.
Fourteen players had ten or more sacks this season, led by Elvis Dumervil with 17.0. Matthews' 10.0 were the most by any rookie not named Brian Orakpo. His three fumble recoveries were the most by any rookie and tied for second-most in the NFL. His seven passes defended were ninth-most of outside linebackers.
But his impact goes beyond numbers. Watch how he chased down Daunte Culpepper for a good 10 seconds at the end of the half on Thanksgiving. Watch how he ripped the ball out of Adrian Peterson's hands and returned it for a score, tying the game at 14. Watch how he layed out to break up the pass intended for Vernon Davis, which was thrown pretty well. Watch how he absolutely blew up Joshua Cribbs when the Browns tried to run the Wildcat in his direction.
It's clear that Matthews has the athletic ability, drive, and determination to be a premier defender in the league, but let's not forget the situation he landed in. Even with Green Bay switching to a 3-4 defense and on the lookout for players that can fit the nearly-impossible-to-fill pass rushing OLB role, there was a good chance that he would have landed elsewhere. That's where one of Green Bay's defensive coaches comes into play and ultimately what made Matthews' rookie season so memorable.
Kevin Greene went to the NFL combine last February and interviewed Clay Matthews in Indianapolis. He lobbied for Matthews to be selected in the 2009 draft, an initiative which eventually succeeded. Greene, a fellow walk-on college athlete, saw something most others didn't. The NFL's leading linebacker in sacks knew that, if given the chance, Matthews would work harder than anyone else and have more success as a result.
But Greene didn't just see what Matthews was in college, nor does he see just what he is today. He's also looking to the future, the distant future, where Matthews could eventually replace him in the record books:
"I thought I put some numbers on the board that might never be reached," said Greene, a five-time Pro Bowler. "I mean, 160 is a lot of sacks. But I haven't seen a lot of people come through like Clay. If anybody can do it, he can do it."
Charles Woodson won the DPOY in 2009, and he deserved it. Clay Matthews might be challenging all comers for that award for the next decade. Not bad for a walk-on, and not bad for Packer fans in the years to come.