With only five outside linebackers under contract for the 2014 season, the Green Bay Packers will have their work cut out for them in order to fill the depth problems at the OLB position.
Aside from the injuries which rattled this unit all year long, an equally eye-popping problem that manifested itself all year was the lack of depth. Nick Perry finished up his second season in Green Bay, and the former first round pick showed us that he has a lot left to learn. Mike Neal wrapped up his fourth season in Green Bay, but the first at linebacker. He was impressive at some points, but still hasn't paid dividends for the Packers as a former second round pick. Then there is Clay Matthews, the $70 million man, who missed five games (plus a sixth in the playoffs) with a broken thumb in 2013. The Packers were forced to rely on undrafted rookie free agent Andy Mulumba to start three games in 2013. That isn't a knock on the former Eastern Michigan standout, but rather a shot at general manager Ted Thompson, who has failed to address depth issues at a number of key positions, including outside linebacker.
As we know well, the Packers rarely break the bank in free agency, so here are a few options in free agency that the Packers could consider that would be cap friendly. Also, a few prospects from the 2014 NFL Draft at outside linebacker that would look good in the Green and Gold.
Neal has been an enigma in Green Bay in his four seasons with the team. His inability to stay healthy has cost him some money this offseason. For the first time in his career, Neal played all 16 games in 2013 for the Packers, which could bode well for him in free agency. At the very least I expect the Packers to offer a contract to Neal, who flashed at times last season. Whether the money will be acceptable to Neal or not is a question that will remain unanswered for now.
Worilds is an interesting player that the Packers could take a long look at. Worilds was drafted in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft and was a non-factor in the Pittsburgh Steelers defense his first couple of seasons playing behind the likes of Lamar Woodley and James Harrison. 2013 was really the first year Worilds was the exclusive starter along side Woodley for the Steelers. He raked up eight sacks, which was a half-sack more than Clay Matthews, the Packers leader in 2013.
Worilds made just under $1 million last season in the final year of his rookie contract. Worilds could secure a deal similar to the deal that Phillip Wheeler received, a five-year, $26 million ($13 million guaranteed) from the Miami Dolphins last offseason.
There are other free agents available, such as Brian Orakpo and Anthony Spencer, but those two players are all but guaranteed to receive big pay days this offseason, something the Packers don't issue often. Orakpo made just over $3.5 million in 2013 in the final year of his contract with the Washington Redskins. That number could potentially be tripled if a team is willing to go that high for his services.
Spencer made $10.5 million for the Dallas Cowboys in the final year of his contract. I don't see him getting a contract similar to that this time around in free agency, however, crazier things have happened in free agency, for example Erik Walden receiving a four-year, $16 million contract from the Indianapolis Colts last offseason.
2014 NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS
Dee Ford (Auburn)
In the Senior Bowl, Dee Ford played a lot of defensive end with his hand in the ground, however, at 6-2, 238 pounds Ford will be better suited to play OLB in a 3-4 scheme at the next level. His size is perfect for a 3-4 OLB and his athleticism will let him play better in the open field than Nick Perry has shown.
Ford had a very impressive Senior Bowl performance on his way to the being named the game's MVP after recording two sacks — he also batted a ball down at the line. He was a force to be reckoned with all day and at times the North team simply couldn't block him.
Ford finished the 2013 season with 10.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, 14.5 tackles for loss, all while missing the first two games of the season. That is the type of production the Packers are aching for at the outside linebacker position. According to CBS Sports, Ford is projected as a late-first or early-second round pick and will most likely be available for the Packers at pick No. 21.
Kyle Van Noy (BYU)
Kyle Van Noy is a very intriguing prospect for the Packers to consider. He was one of the most productive players in BYU history. Van Noy was an impact player for the Cougars and a stat sheet stuffer. He finished the 2013 season with 68 total tackles, 17.5 for a loss, four sacks, two interceptions, and seven pass deflections. He was the FBS Independent Defensive Player of the Year.
At 6-3, 235 pounds, Van Noy is a prototypical 3-4 NFL outside linebacker. He has the athleticism to cover running backs in the NFL, which is vital with the ever evolving NFL passing game. He also has all the physical tools to be a dominate run stopper. Like Perry, he will need to show different moves when rushing the quarterback as he tends to rely on the bull-rush too often. CBS Sports has Van Noy as a projected first or second round pick.
Trent Murphy (Stanford)
Trent Murphy struggled at defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons coaching staff, who placed him there during the Senior Bowl. At 6-6, 252 pounds Murphy may be better suited to play the 3-4 OLB in the NFL, however, many scouts don't think he can play there as well. As of right now Murphy is a bit of a wild card that teams will have to have a specific plan for if they decide to draft him. CBS Sports has Murphy as a projected second to third round talent.
Adrian Hubbard (Alabama)
Adrian Hubbard could be a nice value pick for a team in the fourth or fifth round. At 6-6, 255 pounds, Hubbard is a large man and not considered quick or athletic by any means. I was able to talk to one scout who told me that Hubbard doesn't do any one thing particularly well, but his versatility will be something coaches will be enamored with at the next level.
Hubbard left Alabama after his junior year, which surprised some scouts who believed another year in school would be extremely beneficial for Hubbard. However, if the Packers were to get Hubbard in the fifth round, many would consider that a steal based on potential alone.