Over a two-week span, we are taking a look at each position group on the Packers and provide grades and insight on how they performed in the 2014 season. Today, we'll be looking at the linebackers. Follow along with all of our positional breakdowns here.
The Green Bay Packers added three players to their outside linebacker unit during the 2014 offseason. Each of the three came from a different place - one had been cut by a divisional rival, another was re-signed after completing his rookie contract with the Packers, and the third was a draft pick.
By the end of the season, two-thirds of this trio had made some sort of impact on the team, while the rookie had shifted inside and did not see game action during the season. Here's a look at the three new linebackers and their contributions.
Years in the NFL: 13
How Acquired: Signed as unrestricted free agent (released by Bears)
Contract Details: Three years, $26 million
2014 Compensation: $7.5 million signing bonus, $1 million base salary; $3.5 million salary cap hit
2014 Stats: 16 games, 16 starts; 54 total tackles (34 solo), 7.0 sacks; 2 interceptions (2 returned for touchdowns), 6 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 11 passes defended
Ted Thompson made his biggest free agent signing since 2006 last offseason, bringing the Bears castoff in for a shot at a Super Bowl ring and to provide pass rush opposite Clay Matthews. Peppers brought the splash plays, leading the NFL in turnover plays (interceptions plus fumbles forced plus fumbles recovered).
Peppers appeared to play at his best when his snap counts were limited; some of his worst games game when he played nearly every snap, but when he was closer to 50-60% he was extremely effective.
He also showed up big in some of the most opportune times, as well; he added 2.5 sacks and two more forced fumbles in the Packers' two playoff games, and made arguably the play of the game against Dallas when he stripped the ball from DeMarco Murray.
Though looked at as a risky signing at the time (especially given that he had never played in a 3-4 defense before), Peppers provided a massive impact this season. However, with a salary cap hit of over $12 million for 2015, it seems likely that Ted Thompson looked at his contract as a one-year deal with the likelihood of restructuring him this offseason.
Years in the NFL: 5
How Acquired: Re-signed as unrestricted free agent
Contract Details: 2 years, $8 million
2014 Compensation: $2.5 million signing bonus, $2 million base salary, $300,000 roster bonuses, $200,000 workout bonus; $3.75 million salary cap hit
2014 Stats: 16 games played, 3 starts; 42 total tackles (24 solo), 4.5 sacks
For the second year in a row, Neal played all 16 games for the Packers, but in 2014 he was able to be more of a rotational player rather than being forced to start due to injury. Neal played about 60% of the team's snaps, and despite finishing with the fourth-most quarterback pressures on the team, he was given a harsh -14.0 pass-rushing grade by Pro Football Focus. Neal actually earned positive grades against the run.
Neal also provided value in his versatility, as he was able to rush from both a two- and three-point stance. He occasionally lined up at defensive tackle in the nickel or dime formations in addition to a more traditional outside linebacker spot.
Still, Neal's ability to get to the quarterback when he was on the field was only moderate; he ranked 41st out of 47 qualifying outside linebackers in PFF's Pass Rushing Productivity measurement. For a $4 million per year investment, the Packers likely would have hoped to get more out of him.
Years in the NFL: 1
How Acquired: Fourth-round draft pick (#121 overall)
Contract Details: 4 years, $2,649,300
2014 Compensation: $429,300 signing bonus, $420,000 base salary; $527,325 salary cap hit
2014 Stats: none
Bradford was moved to inside linebacker late in the 2014 preseason, but as a technicality we will include him with the outside linebackers since that is the position the team listed him at on draft day. Bradford failed to have any impact on the outside in the preseason, and some expected him to be a victim of roster cuts at the end of training camp. Though he made the team, he was inactive on gameday each week.
Of course, spending a mid-round pick on a player who was a healthy scratch each week is a significant disappointment. However, the fact that he has potential to move inside in 2015 means that the jury is still out on whether the investment will be a good one.