For the 2014 Green Bay Packers, it is not a difficult task to determine who the key players at outside linebacker will be. However, identifying which of the backups will make the roster out of camp is a much tougher task. Below we'll take a look top to bottom at the depth chart to guess at which players will have to fight for their football lives in training camp.
There are two players who are absolutely guaranteed to have roster spots at outside linebacker this season: Clay Matthews and of course Julius Peppers. You could also count the recently re-signed Mike Neal in there as well, though it appears that he will go back to playing some defensive end this season.
The Packers also have a fourth-round pick in this year's draft, Carl Bradford, who will be fighting for playing time. In all likelihood, Bradford will earn a roster spot, as Ted Thompson has never once cut a player drafted prior to the fifth round in that player's first training camp. It would likely take a massively disappointing summer from Bradford for him to get the axe. In essence, Bradford being considered an unlikely cut brings the number of linebackers with roster spots already claimed up to four.
Now we move on to Nick Perry, who is a bit of an enigma. The converted defensive end is entering his third season and has shown plenty of flashes of excellent play from the outside linebacker position, but lacks consistency and does not appear to have fully acclimated to playing entirely out of a two-point stance. Perhaps Dom Capers' adopting of more 4-3 concepts and planning to line Perry up at the Elephant end position on occasion will help his development. In any case, it would still be a shock to see Perry cut before the 2014 season kicks off, and we will assume that his spot is secure.
That leaves four more outside linebackers on the team: 2013 sixth-round draft pick Nate Palmer, last year's undrafted free agent Andy Mulumba, and 2014 rookie free agents Adrian Hubbard from Alabama and Jayrone Elliott out of Toledo bring the total number to eight.
The next question becomes how much roster space the Packers will devote to the position. We decided to look back into the past few years to see how many outside linebackers were on the Packers' week 1 roster each year after the final cut-down.
|Year||Number on Week 1 Roster||Players|
|2013||4/5*||Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer, Mike Neal*|
|2012||5#||Matthews, Perry, Erik Walden#, Jamari Lattimore, Dezman Moses|
|2011||5^||Matthews, Walden, Lattimore, Vic So'oto, Brad Jones|
|2010||4||Matthews, Jones, Brady Poppinga, Frank Zombo|
* Mike Neal was on the opening-week roster in 2013, but many (ourselves included) still expected him to play primarily defensive end.
# Walden served a one-game suspension during week 1 of the 2012 season, but was immediately activated afterwards (at the expense of CB Brandian Ross), so he is included here.
^ Zombo started the 2011 season on the PUP list and was therefore not counted.
We see here that the team has carried no more than five outside linebackers on the opening-week roster at any point over the past few years. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that Palmer, Mulumba, Hubbard, and Elliott will be fighting it out in training camp for a maximum of one roster spot between them. Of course, the two rookies will be eligible for the practice squad in 2014, while Palmer is also eligible since he was on the 45-man gameday roster for only eight games in 2013 (the limit is 9). Mulumba is not, as he was active for 14 games.
In addition to being rotational players on defense, the 5th linebacker (as well as the rookie Bradford) will be called upon to contribute heavily on special teams. Exceptional play in that phase of the game could indeed prove to be the difference, as it was for Jamari Lattimore early on in his career. If that becomes a deciding factor, Mulumba (5 total tackles on Special Teams in 2013) probably has an edge over Palmer (none), while the rookie UDFAs will be tough to predict until they see the field in the preseason.
All in all, I do expect to see the Packers keep five outside linebackers in 2014, especially if they utilize Julius Peppers and Nick Perry more out of a three-point stance as Elephant ends and mvoe Mike Neal back to primarily playing defensive end. Of course, injuries have decimated the linebacker position for the Packers over the past few years, so developing depth will have to be a concern. Based purely on play from 2013, it seems that Mulumba would be the front-runner for that last spot, which will be decided over the next two weeks of OTAs, the minicamp the following week, and training camp.