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Packers Training Camp Preview: Familiar OLB faces looking for an uptick in pressure

Green Bay made few roster moves at edge rusher during the offseason, instead relying on leaps from younger players.

New Orleans Saints v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Continuing our series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ 90-man roster heading into training camp, we examine the outside linebackers and reveal our pre-camp predictions for the team’s 2018 53-man roster. Follow along over the next two weeks as we break down the roster position-by-position and reveal our predictions.

There’s a new defensive coordinator in Green Bay, but the faces at outside linebacker remain relatively the same.

As outlined by the numbers in a recent article by APC’s Paul Noonan, the Packers struggled to pressure quarterbacks in 2017 and were left especially vulnerable when pressure was non-existent, ranking last in DVOA. Still, the Packers did little outside of bringing in Mike Pettine to rectify the situation in the offseason, seeking improvement from its cast of young players in 2018 instead.

The Packers return all of their outside linebackers from the unit a season ago, with the exception of long-time veteran Ahmad Brooks. With stable veteran starters on each side of the defensive front, Green Bay will be looking for second-year players specifically to take a step forward into important roles this season.

Nick Perry

NFL Experience: Six seasons
Contract: Second season of five-year, $59 million ($18.5 million signing bonus) deal
2017 Stats: 12 games; 7.0 sacks, 38 combined tackles, one fumble forced, one fumble recovery

After signing a handsome second contract after the 2016 season, Perry suffered through injuries and periods of relative ineffectiveness last season. The final stat line doesn’t scream unproductive, but it’s important to note that three of Perry’s seven sacks came in one game against the Chicago Bears. He also failed to record a sack over the final four games of his 12-game season while dealing with shoulder issues. Still, Pro Football Focus noted that Perry led Packers edge rushers with 17 stops, a number that tied for 15th in the NFL among qualified 3-4 outside linebackers.

With shoulder and hand injuries in two of the past three seasons inhibiting his play, it’s increasingly important for Perry to stay healthy in 2018. He’s shown he can be a difference maker when he is and, in Pettine’s scheme, Perry could get back to his 11-sack output from 2016. The Packers are counting on it.

Clay Matthews

NFL Experience: Nine seasons
Contract: Final season of five-year, $66 million ($20.5 million signing bonus) deal
2017 Stats: 14 games; 7.5 sacks, 43 combined tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery

Like Perry, Matthews struggled with injuries in the later portion of the year and posted a three-sack game that amplified his final stat line. A groin injury in the middle half of the season slowed Matthews, while recurring hamstring issues sidelined him for the final two games of the season.

Through the first nine games of the 2017 season, Matthews had accumulated just 2.5 sacks. Yet, he finished strong in the second half and recorded an “above average” 83.4 grade from PFF as he posted his highest sack total since 2014. He also registered 39 pressures according to PFF, which ranked him tied for 17th among qualified 3-4 edge linebackers.

While the Packers develop their youth at the outside linebacker position this season, they hope Matthews can give them one more solid campaign during a contract year.

Reggie Gilbert

NFL Experience: One season (2 games in 2017)
Contract: Final season of two-year contract; 2018 base salary and cap hit $480,000
2017 Stats: 2 games; 1.0 sack, 2 combined tackles

The former Arizona Wildcat spent a year and 15 weeks on the Packers’ practice squad before getting the call up to the 53-man roster on December 22nd. Gilbert showed enough pass rushing potential in the final two games to provide optimism about his impact in 2018.

Much like how David Bakhtiari wondered about it late in the season, many Packers fans scratched their heads at Gilbert’s lack of playing time after showing some flashes in preseason. His development in two seasons has garnered some praise from veteran Packers and Gilbert played a team-high 46 snaps against the Minnesota Vikings, in which he recorded three pressures and two quarterback hits. The Packers will be looking for more depth and energy off the bench in the 2018 campaign and Gilbert, with good size for the position, could be a spark plug.

Vince Biegel

NFL Experience: One season
Contract: Second season of four-year, $3,093,743 ($693,743 signing bonus) rookie deal
2017 Stats: 9 games; 16 combined tackles

The Wisconsin native’s rookie season was halted early on with a foot injury that led to an early season stint on the PUP list. Biegel battled back to play in the final nine games of the season with a season-high 22 snaps against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also progressively earned more special teams snaps as the season went on, finishing with 138.

With a healthy offseason in which he gained weight and strength to hold up on the outside, Biegel gives the Packers a glorified extra draft pick heading into the season. Biegel’s NFL impact remains unknown, but should be a bit clearer by the end of the year. Together, the anticipated second-year leaps from Gilbert and Biegel were enough for the Packers not to emphasize the edge rushing position during the offseason.

Kyler Fackrell

NFL Experience: Two seasons
Contract: Third season of four-year, $3,134,328 ($694,048 signing bonus) rookie deal
2017 Stats: 16 games; 3.0 sacks, 28 combined tackles, one fumble recovery

The former third round pick played in all 16 games a year ago, starting two. Fackrell did add an extra sack from his rookie year totals and showed more flashy moments during his sophomore campaign. Yet, at age 26, there are questions of whether Fackrell has hit his ceiling already and if he can become more than a backup option for Green Bay.

The Packers are not a team that historically gives up on second-day draft picks, but Fackrell will need to have a promising training camp to make this year’s squad. As of now, he has not separated himself from similar young players like Gilbert and Biegel. However, despite the popular objection, Fackrell is not as bad as he is made out to be.

Chris Odom

NFL Experience: One season
Contract: Second season of three-year, $1,665,000 (no signing bonus) deal
2017 Stats: 7 games; 6 combined tackles

An impressive rookie training camp with the Atlanta Falcons put Odom on the map and, after being waived, he was quickly scooped up by the Packers. However, like Gilbert who had to convert from a 4-3 defensive end to stand-up edge rusher in a 3-4, Odom curiously struggled to get snaps for a Green Bay defense in need of a jolt.

With almost a year of training and development, the Packers should get a better idea of the player they have in Odom once preseason gets under way. He enters training camp in a battle for a final roster spot with several of the players named above.

Kendall Donnerson

NFL Experience: Rookie season
Contract: First season of a four-year, $2,530,955 ($70,955 signing bonus) rookie deal
2017 Stats: N/A

The small-school product from Southeast Missouri State is an extremely raw NFL prospect, but the Packers saw enough from a physical testing perspective to make him a seventh round draft pick. According to the NFL’s Lance Zierlein, Donnerson boasted what would have been elite testing numbers at the Combine, including a 4.48 40-yard time at 250 pounds. He had a breakthrough senior season for the Redhawks with 13.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks, and three forced fumbles.

Green Bay won’t expect Donnerson to be an immediate polished product or impact player in year one. But the Packers are looking to develop him into a pass rushing specialist down the road. Surely, time on the practice squad could be a possibility for Donnerson as a rookie, but it will be exciting to see if he can make some eye-popping plays in preseason action.

Naashon Hughes

NFL Experience: Rookie season
Contract: First season of a three-year, $1,710,000 (no signing bonus) deal
2017 Stats: N/A

An undrafted rookie from Texas, Hughes totaled 12.5 sacks during his Longhorns career, but just 2.5 sacks as a senior after playing in a mere seven games. At 6’3,” 259 pounds, Hughes has some size to work with as an edge rushing prospect after playing both defensive end and linebacker in college. He was also a team captain as a senior and was seen as a high-upside player with impressive measurables. Still, Hughes is more than likely battling for a practice squad opportunity during training camp.