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2015 Packers Outside Linebackers Grade: Julius Peppers fills Clay Matthews' Absence

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Injury once again forced Clay Matthews to play inside linebacker the majority of the season. How did the rest of the outside linebackers fare without the Claymaker?

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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 outside linebackers. Follow along with all of our positional breakdowns here.

The outside linebacker group looked a little different for the Green Bay Packers in 2015.  Clay Matthews was no longer headlining the group thanks to a move to the inside position.  This meant veteran Julius Peppers led the unit as Matthews spent most of his time inside.

Coach Mike McCarthy went on record after the end of the season saying the plan is to move Matthews back to the outside position for 2016, but is this an indictment of how the outside linebackers performed or is it just moving a veteran player back to his natural place on the field?

Take a look below as we grade the outside linebackers.

Julius Peppers

Entering the second year of the deal he signed prior to the 2014 season, Peppers was still expected to carry his share of the load despite turning 36 just two days after the Packers were eliminated by the Arizona Cardinals.

Peppers finished 2015 with 10.5 sacks, his highest total since he recorded 11.5 in 2012 with the Chicago Bears.  He also had a combined tackle total of 37, which was his lowest since recording 37 in 2011 also with the Bears.  With the outside linebackers primarily generating the pass rush in the 3-4 defensive scheme the Packers run, this would point to a solid if not good season for Peppers.

General Manager Ted Thompson has a decision to make on what to do with Peppers. He is due $8 million in salary and has a cap hit of $10.5 million.  With fellow OLBs Mike Neal and Nick Perry both scheduled to become free agents, Thompson is in a bit of a bind.  Peppers just had his most productive season in four years, yet he is 36 and only has a couple years left in him.

Is this enough to let either Neal or Perry walk?

Mike Neal

Neal was an injury risk early in his career, yet the Packers continued to hang onto him because they saw his natural athletic ability and were high on the potential talent he could bring to the pass rush and ease pressure on Matthews.

Neal played in all 16 games for the third straight season, picking up 36 total tackles and four sacks.  He made a strong final impression on the team as he had two sacks and three tackles in the playoff victory over the Washington Redskins.  As for the rest of the season, he was not as big of an impact player as Peppers but he still held his own and was healthy for another year.

He’s a versatile player who can play both linebacker and end in the Packers’ scheme and this could bode well for him with Matthews returning to the other outside position.  It could very well be either him or Perry that leave in the offseason, so did he do enough to best Perry in 2015?

That’s the question Thompson will have to answer.

Nick Perry

The much maligned 2012 first round draft choice missed two games this season, but when he was on the field he was again flashing his potential, making critical sacks and tackles when needed.

Also a pending free agent, Perry needed to have a breakthrough season in 2015 but he did not really deliver.  Perry couldn’t hold his own outside with Matthews mostly inside, but with the return of the Claymaker to the outside position this coming season Perry could experience that breakout season (finally) in 2016.

If Thompson brings him back, that is.

Jayrone Elliott

As the defensive MVP of the previous two training camps, Elliott earned more playing time than he received.  He recorded three sacks in 14 games and was a disruptive force every time he was on the field.

His big game of the season came in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks, where his one handed interception sealed the win for the Packers and gave them arguably their banner win for the season. Unfortunately a quadriceps injury nagged him late in the season and caused him to miss the final two regular season games and the playoff game in Washington.

Elliott may very well prove to be another Thompson undrafted free agent diamond in the rough find, but the coaching staff has to get him on the field more.  Should Neal and/or Perry leave, this could be Elliott’s time to shine.

Andy Mulumba

Mulumba saw action in six games and had a total of four tackles.  He is likely going to be in a battle for a roster spot in 2016 if he is not allowed to leave before then.

Clay Matthews

Matthews was forced inside again in 2015 thanks to an early season ending injury to Sam Barrington.  His contributions as an outside linebacker were minimal, but he will be moving back to this position in 2016.

Overall Grade: C

The loss of Matthews to the inside hurt the group, but Peppers stepped in and filled his role rather nicely.

The rest of the outside linebackers however left much to be desired. Perry showed flashes again but still has not realized his potential and is the same for Neal.  Elliott deserved more playing time than he got, which was a truly puzzling move by the defensive staff.

The return of Matthews in 2016 bodes well for the unit but the team cannot afford to let Perry, Neal and Peppers all leave.  The guess here is Peppers is back for one more year and the team will be high enough on Elliott that either Perry or Neal are gone.  Perry is the younger player, so if Thompson sticks to his M.O., it will likely be him that returns.