Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company will break down the Green Bay Packers' 90-man roster to analyze each player and his chances of making the roster. That breakdown includes an expansive discussion those returning on existing contracts as well as the team's additions from the offseason.
Tuesday brings the outside linebackers to the forefront. The team's top edge rusher hasn't played on the outside much over the past season and a half. That changes in 2016, when Clay Matthews once again returns to the edge to terrorize offensive tackles.
Clay Matthews, No. 52
H/W: 6-foot-3, 255 pounds
2015 stats: 66 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks, 1 interception
Out of necessity, the Packers shifted Clay Matthews to inside linebacker during the 2014 season to stabilize one of the balkier position groups on the entire roster. Though Matthews performed more than admirably in that role -- he led all linebackers in tackles during the past two years -- his ability to impact the passing game diminished somewhat from its previous levels.
Realizing that Matthews creates more value when playing outside, Green Bay made a concerted effort this offseason to bring in more talent at inside linebacker (fourth-round pick Blake Martinez should compete with Jake Ryan and the recovered Sam Barrington to start in the base defense). That leaves Matthews to return to the edge where he can wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks on a more regular basis.
Age may soon catch up to Matthews. He turned 30 earlier this month and, now entering his eighth season, could slow down in the near future. At the same time, Matthews played every regular season game over the past two years, the longest such streak of his career. If that trend continues, even a slightly slower Matthews could see his pressure and sack totals bounce back to his pre-inside-linebacker levels.
Julius Peppers, No. 56
H/W: 6-foot-7, 287 pounds
2015 stats: 37 tackles, 10 1/2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Julius Peppers has seen his snap count drop each of the previous two seasons, a sign that while he remains a freak-of-nature athlete, his workload requires moderation as he reaches his late 30s. Still, despite less action last year, Peppers produced his highest sack total (10 1/2) since 2012. The future Hall of Famer also registered double-digit takeaways for his third consecutive campaign. Even if the team cannot depend on that kind of production from Peppers in 2016, he remains the type of playmaker that opposing offenses have to account for whenever he takes the field. With Matthews re-joining him at outside linebacker, Peppers should see fewer double teams as well.
Nick Perry, No. 53
H/W: 6-foot-3, 265 pounds
2015 stats: 31 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, 1 forced fumble
As he has for the majority of his NFL career, Nick Perry made only limited impact as a pass rusher during the regular season. His 3 1/2 sacks fell right in line with his yearly average, and he often disappeared during games. At the conclusion of the regular season, it seemed Perry might soon depart Green Bay for good.
Instead, Perry put on a tremendous playoff performance, doubling his regular-season sack total in just two postseason appearances and, for a time, requiring as much attention from blockers as Peppers. That production likely contributed to Perry re-signing with the Packers on a one-year deal.
Now, Perry has the opportunity to secure his future. If he can build off his playoff run, the 26 year old can expect to sign a lucrative long-term contract with the Packers or another club. If he falls short, Perry can still find a taker in free agency next year, though likely again on a short-term deal.
Datone Jones, No. 95
H/W: 6-foot-4, 285 pounds
2015 stats: 20 tackles, 3 sacks
By all appearances, Datone Jones has become the latest of Green Bay's interior defensive linemen to transition to "elephant" rusher, one of the team's outside linebacker positions. Jones has always possessed tremendous athleticism and could thrive in a role where speed and length cause issues for blockers, though the conversion to the edge usually takes some time to complete.
Still, Jones has some experience playing outside. He took most of his snaps during the latter half of 2015 at linebacker, setting him up to play there more regularly during the upcoming season. Like Perry, he has the opportunity to cash in next offseason if the transition goes well.
Jayrone Elliott, No. 91
H/W: 6-foot-3, 255 pounds
2015 stats: 24 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception
Already, Jayrone Elliott may have become the Packers' best undrafted-free-agent outside linebacker under Ted Thompson. Though his role remains somewhat limited, Elliott became a more efficient pass rusher in his second NFL season, producing a career-best three sacks, as much as the more heralded Jones and nearly the equal of Perry. While both of those players return and expect to take most of the snaps not already allocated to Matthews or Peppers, Elliott could become a greater factor in 2016.
Elliott enters the final year of his rookie contract this season. While he does not qualify for unrestricted free agency, a good campaign could force the Packers to tender him at the second-round level or higher.