Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2015 season. Today, we examine the inside linebackers. Follow along with all of our positional breakdowns here.
Coming into the 2015 season with the intent of moving Clay Matthews to the inside linebacker position full-time, the Green Bay Packers were forced to search for answers when lack of depth at the position ultimately caught up with them. Matthews was moved to the inside slot from his usual outside domain during the 2014 season, when the Packers were ranked among the worst teams in the league in stopping the run.
Entering the 2015 season, the Packers were counting on Matthews and Sam Barrington to produce similar results to their uplifting stretch through the final seven games of the 2014 season. Jake Ryan, Nate Palmer, and Joe Thomas would constitute depth behind Matthews and Barrington resulting in a questionable approach to the position.
When Barrington went down with a season ending injury early, the Packers were forced to substitute players with little experience to account for the injury with varied success.
Matthews is phenomenally talented, and is going to perform well through any obstacle you give him. Although he went through some stretches where he didn't register much of an impact defensively, the transition you saw him make this season was remarkable.
Towards the end of the 2015 season, it became more and more eye-opening that he was being used incorrectly, and it would be ideal to move him back to the outside next season, while finding somebody to fill the inside void through free agency or the NFL Draft.
This season Matthews accumulated 49 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 17 assists. He also added a key interception in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears, which all but sealed the game. He did go through a rough stretch during the season in Week's 15 and 16, where he failed to make a single tackle during that two week span. Ultimately, Matthews was a huge piece for the Packers defensively in being able to make the transition to a new position full-time.
A fourth round pick in the 2015 draft, the University of Michigan product performed well in his first season after being forced to make a fast leap into a starting role. Ryan started in five games during the 2015 season, and although some inefficiencies were exposed in his game, the young linebacker has a tremendous amount of promise and potential.
He excelled from a zone coverage standpoint in college, but showed weaknesses this season in man to man situations. Rookie running back David Johnson absolutely roasted Ryan in Week 16, before Ryan got the better of the match up in the post-season.
He has the reputation of being a quick learner, and was more than willing to spend extra time in the film room even at Michigan. He was forced into a rushed situation this season, but adapted well overall.
Palmer experienced his fair share of struggles during the 2015 season, most notably in Week 8 against the Denver Broncos where he was pulled during the game in favor of Ryan. A sixth round pick in the 2013 draft, Palmer will be entering a contract season in 2016.
Palmer accumulated 44 tackles, one sack, and 20 assists in 2015, while receiving a 44.1 rating analytical according to ProFootballFocus.com. The final seven games of the regular and post-season saw Palmer tally only one tackle. He will be 27 next season, and may be fighting for a roster spot depending on how the Packers choose to address the position during the off-season.
Not making the team initially, Thomas was signed back onto the roster from the Cowboys' practice squad after Barrington went down with an injury in Week 1. With flashes of success during the preseason, Thomas saw action as early as Week 3 where he tallied three tackles and one sack against the Kansas City Chiefs.
He registered 17 tackles and one sack on the season, and was rated higher than Palmer and Ryan analytically. Turning 25 years old before next season, Thomas will be a name to keep your eye on during training camp and the preseason, when battling for a roster spot.
Poised for a big year in 2015, Barrington missed the final 15 games and post-season with an ankle injury he suffered in Week 1. He will turn 26 in October and should be a big piece to the puzzle for the Packers defensively, next season. After starting seven games, Barrington was credited with 45 tackles, one sack, and 21 assists, in 2014.
Overall Grade: C-
Although Matthews transitioned well into the position, the Packers were limited at inside linebacker due to inexperience. I wouldn't fault the players as much as the front office, as there was a void left open concerning depth.
One can only hope the Packers choose to address the position with Matthews moving back to the outside, through the NFL Draft or free agency. Names such as Derrick Johnson or Danny Trevathan come to mind when considering free agency, and could make an immediate impact entering next season.
The draft may be a bit of a different story as prospects such as Reggie Ragland and Jaylon Smith are projected to go higher than 27th overall, and outside of those two, the position lacks first round talent. Names such as Scooby Wright, Kentrell Brothers, or Tyler Matakevich may be options for the Packers later on.
However they choose to address it, inside linebacker needs to be a position of emphasis this off-season. Although Ryan and Barrington are solid pieces, the front office would go a long way in getting the position some depth or more experience.