Over the next few weeks, we will break down each position on the Green Bay Packers' 2015 roster in detail, discussing each player and making our predictions for the final 53-man roster.
Off the top, the first thing readers will notice about Acme Packing Company's outside linebacker preview is the absence of a particular name. Clay Matthews, the team's top pass rusher since 2009, was classified as an inside linebacker this year. While exact nature of Matthews' dual-role in the defense remains somewhat unclear, the majority of the APC staff listed the All-Pro as one of the two starting inside linebackers in the base 3-4 defense. Accordingly, this preview focuses on those who will try to fill in for Matthews when he plays over the middle.
Here is a detailed look at the returning outside linebackers from the 2014 roster.
H/w: 6'7", 287
NFL seasons: 13
College: North Carolina
2014 stats: 43 tackles, 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles 2 interceptions, 2 touchdowns
When the Packers surprisingly signed Julius Peppers last offseason, expectations for the veteran edge rusher were difficult to place. The team discussed limiting his snap count to keep him fresh, which seemed a smart approach. However, given that the 34-year-old had never played linebacker during his NFL career, the prospect of a face plant wasn't entirely off the table.
Whatever one may have predicted for Peppers heading into the year, the future Hall of Famer likely exceeded those expectations. Not only did he provide excellent pass rush and consistent run support, but the graybeard ran back his first (and second) pick-six since his Carolina Days. Without Peppers presence outside, it's difficult to imagine Dom Capers shifting Matthews inside after the bye week.
As for 2015, Peppers probably can't come close to replicating last year's production. Of course, those who bet against him last year probably felt confident about their predictions too.
H/w: 6'3", 265
NFL seasons: 3
College: Southern California
2014 stats: 24 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble
Is he simply a mismatch for Green Bay's defense, a victim of the cruel injury bug or something else altogether? These questions surround Nick Perry as he enters 2015, the final year of his rookie contract.
The only common trend during Perry's first three NFL seasons was his regular appearance on the injury report. While he only missed one game in 2014, he appeared limited in several others. While some injuries come as the result of bad luck, this has become a major concern with Perry. Likely in part due to his health, the Packers chose not to pick up Perry's fifth-year option.
2015 is the most critical year of Perry's career whether or not it proves his last in Green Bay. If he can break through and provide the Packers consistent play outside, Matthews will be free to spend more time inside and the defense should improve as a result. If Perry has another year of flashes and disappearances, a low-earning "prove it" contract awaits him in 2016, likely with another team.
H/w: 6'3", 262
NFL seasons: 5
2014 stats: 33 tackles, 4.5 sacks
Like Perry, Mike Neal was saddled with the "injury prone" tag early in his career. However, after a position change (and significant weight drop), Neal has appeared in every game over the past two seasons.
While Neal looks more like a linebacker now than he did a few years ago, his movements still appear somewhat stiff. He can't match the fluidity of superior athletes like Matthews or Peppers. However, his raw strength -- matched by few around the league -- allows him to compete outside. Neal enters a contract year, but if he plays like he has since moving to linebacker, he'll have plenty of interest come next offseason.
H/w: 6'3", 255
NFL seasons: 1
2014 stats: 15 tackles
The Packers' breakout star of the 2014 preseason, Jayrone Elliott became the latest undrafted rookie edge rusher to make the team's 53-man roster. His NFL-leading 5 sacks during the exhibition games made him popular among fans, but that production didn't lead to a significant defensive role during the regular season.
Elliott has a chance to carve out a niche this year, however. With both Perry and Neal set to hit free agency next offseason, Elliott can secure his future by proving to Packers brass that he can replicate his preseason success when the games actually matter.
H/w: 6'6", 257
NFL seasons: 1 (practice squad)
2014 stats: (none)
After the dust settled following the 2014 draft, Alabama's Adrian Hubbard found himself without a team. Seeing an opening with the Packers, a team that has consistently given roster spots to undrafted pass rushers, Hubbard jumped aboard and looked like a strong candidate to make the 53.
Of course, that didn't happen. The 6'6", 255-pound linebacker couldn't flash his potential as consistently as the less-heralded Elliott. Rather than scrap the experiment and move on, the Packers decided to give Hubbard a spot on their practice squad. His length and pedigree suggest that he'll become more of a factor in Year 2, but he has a lot of strong competition for a job.
H/w: 6'3", 260
NFL seasons: 2
College: Eastern Michigan
2014 stats: 1 tackle
It's easy to forget that before Elliott and Hubbard, Andy Mulumba played 361 snaps for the Packers as an undrafted rookie linebacker out of Eastern Michigan. The quiet pass rusher -- and first-round CFL draft pick -- didn't perform great in that first year, but he outclassed Green Bay's other rookie pass rushers and appeared on his way to a more significant role down the line.
Unfortunately for Mulumba and the team, an ACL tear intervened. That was almost a year ago, so the third-year linebacker should return to the field soon.