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Packers 2016 Training Camp Preview: Veteran OLBs will battle for playing time

How many snaps will the Packers’ numerous outside linebackers each get this season? And how many can they afford to keep on the roster?

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Packers still ostensibly use outside linebackers and inside linebackers as is typical of a base 3-4 defense, but in reality those distinctions are mostly ceremonial. The front office clearly believes that those labeled as “outside linebackers,” however you want to define them, are generally more valuable and they continue to stockpile the position at the expense of inside linebacker. On the Packers, inside linebacker is what you fail down to. Outside linebackers are a collection of freakish athletes and pass rushing specialists, some of whom can move inside if needed. In a perfect world, Dom Capers would have 4 “outside” linebackers on the field, and we may just see that occasionally this year.

Clay Matthews, #52

6’3”, 255 pounds
8th season
College: USC

There are some people who will tell you that Matthews had a disappointing year serving as the de facto starting inside linebacker, wasting his precious outside talents. As the resident stat nerd around here, I will tell you that some people watch tape without any sense of the forest, instead focusing on the tree’s poor root position. In reality, Matthews was a holy terror, providing his usual solid pass rush, severely pounding any poor running back that made it to his level, and eating up tons of real estate with his ability to pursue laterally and recover in pass defense. Matthews’ tendency to go full bore at all times is occasionally exploited by offensive coordinators and he can be caught out of position, but Matthews is either too savvy (or too dumb) to let that stop him. A hesitant Matthews is an ineffective Matthews, and when he guesses right, good things happen for the Packers. He is, if anything, underrated, and almost certainly the second-most valuable Packer player. He turns 30 this season, but he’s played in all 16 games in two consecutive seasons, and will likely be the anchor of a top-5 defense this year.

Julius Peppers, #56

6’6”, 283 pounds
15th season
College: North Carolina

Peppers finally started to show some age last season, and while he could be exploited in run defense and occasionally in pass coverage, he still provided value as a pass rusher. His 10.5 sacks led the team by a sizeable margin and he was constantly in the face of opposing quarterbacks. Capers is happy to have pass-rushing specialists as long as Morgan Burnett and Ha-Ha Clinton Dix are patrolling the deep middle and Mike Daniels is occupying people up front, and Peppers should continue to be a productive player for one more season given the role he is asked to fill. Ted Thompson may not sign many free agents, but he generally knocks it out of the park when he does.

Nick Perry, #53

6’3”, 271 pounds
6th Season
College: USC

The oft-injured Nick Perry enters his first post-rookie contract - a one-year deal - with an inconsistent record. When healthy, few are better at pressuring the quarterback, but few are worse at remaining healthy. Even when he’s on the field, health issues often serve to render Perry ineffective for long stretches, and while he can provide pressure, I was genuinely shocked to see him with just 12.5 sacks for his career. If he has the kind of season that we’re used to seeing from Nick Perry, it will likely be his last as a Packer.

Jayrone Elliott, #91

6’3”, 240 pounds
3rd Season
College: Toledo

The Preseason All-Star started quickly with a fantastic, game-saving play against the Seahawks early in 2016. He had sacks in each of the following two games, but after that he was basically a non-entity until Week 13 against Dallas. Elliott is polarizing among analysts, as the talent is readily apparent on tape but more often than not he disappears from games. Elliott is still young, and there is plenty of time to make good on that athletic ability, but the coaching staff wasn’t exactly rushing him out on the field regularly, and at some point, potential only gets you so far.

Datone Jones, #95

6’4”, 283 pounds
4th Season
College: UCLA

Everyone thinks that Datone Jones’ move from DE to OLB is already paying dividends as he is “loving it,” but last offseason everyone thought Davante Adams was a budding All-Pro too. Jones may find it difficult to get regular snaps at the position, and while he is athletic enough to succeed at OLB, he still has a lot to prove. He’ll have to prove it quickly, as the Packers didn’t pick up the option on Jones for 2017, and he is due to become a free agent after this season. Jones has a lot to play for, and hopefully the motivation does him a world of good.

Kyler Fackrell, #51

6’5”, 245 pounds
College: Utah State

Fackrell is long, lean, and fast. As a junior he tore his ACL and recovered admirably to have a productive senior season with 5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. There are some concerns about his lower body strength and the injury history, but the 3rd-rounder proved himself adept against the run and pass, and his lateral range is outstanding. There is nothing wrong with Fackrell that an NFL strength and conditioning program can’t fix, and assuming it does, his ceiling is sky high.

Lerentee McCray, #55

6’2”, 246 pounds
3rd Season
College: Florida

McCray signed with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent out of Florida and saw most of his time on special teams. McCray has a ring, and in many ways he’s a fascinating player. Injuries sapped him of consistent playing time at all levels, and he’s never been able to remain in consistent football shape throughout his career. As a result, no one really knows what he would bring to the table as a fully healthy, every-down guy. When on the field in college, McCray was a standout performer. His shoulders and ankles are a mess, but not everyone possesses his tools, and if he can finally get healthy, his upside is second to none. He joins the Packers on a risk-free one year deal, meaning the risk involved is minimal in the Ted Thompson style, and if nothing else he can serve as above-average special teams cannon fodder.

Reggie Gilbert, #93

6’3”, 261 pounds
College: Arizona State

Gilbert was a decent enough college player able to create issues in opposing backfields and generally clean up whatever messes found their way to him. He lacks NFL tools and has dropped some weight to make the switch from DL to LB and to add versatility to his game. Versatility is the name of the game in Green Bay, and while he did enough to get on someone’s radar, he faces an up-mountain battle to crack the roster.