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.
Though his contract was team-friendly this year, the fact that Ted Thompson signed Julius Peppers - a "splash signing" by his standards - tells you a lot about what the team thought of the outside linebackers in 2013 - the depth especially. This year, Peppers' addition paid off - he was arguably the best player on the field at times - but his presence was also somewhat neutralized by Clay Matthews' shift inside midway through the season. That said, the unit as a whole was both healthier (finds gigantic piece of wood to knock on) and more productive this year. So without further ado, let's take a look at this year's pass rushers:
16 games played, 16 starts; 61 tackles, 11.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 INT, 1 upcoming appearance in Pitch Perfect 2
Matthews' role has always been fairly focused - sack the quarterback. From that standpoint, 2014 wasn't his best season. That's largely because the Packers employed ham sandwiches at inside linebacker (more on that position later today), which necessitated a shift for Matthews midway through the season. But really, Matthews' sack numbers and overall pressures pale in importance to another number - games played. And for the first time since his rookie year, Matthews actually played in every single one. His numbers were still very good - particularly late in the year - but that he actually made it through a whole season really reinforced that regardless of position, the Packers defense is better when he's on the field.
54 tackles, 7 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions, 2 touchdowns, 11 passes defended
People forget this, but there was a time when Julius Peppers was a lot like what people thought Jadeveon Clowney would be this year. An anomaly so physically gifted that he defied convention - positional or otherwise. Now that he's 34 years old, Peppers isn't the freak he once was, but he proved he's still among the most talented players in the NFL - transitioning seamlessly to outside linebacker for the first time in his career. And while his numbers on paper don't look much different from his last year with the Bears, it beguiles Peppers' overall impact on the defense. Not only did he give the Packers a true talent across from Clay Matthews for the first time, but there were stretches where he absolutely went off - tying Matthews with a team-high 50 quarterback pressures (according to Pro Football Focus), and making interceptions like this one:
I still love that Peppers outran Jerrick McKinnon (who ran a 4.41 40 at last year's combine). Julius Peppers is not human.
42 tackles, 4.5 sacks
I've actually lived in apartments smaller than Mike Neal's biceps and while Neal has always looked the part, his first three seasons were spent more in the squat rack and rehab table than the actual field. Now though, Neal's settled in to a nice little role with the Packers. Playing in all 32 games the last two seasons, he's consistently given the team solid production from the outside linebacker spot. What makes Neal really valuable however, is his versatility. He's got plenty of burst to play outside, but at 285 lbs (though that listed weight is up for debate) and with Hulk-like strength, he can also line up inside. For the sake of this article, we're looking at Neal solely as a linebacker, but it's impossible not to factor all the other things he does.
23 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble return
I like Nick Perry, but watching him this year made me wonder what Ted Thompson ever saw in him. Perry's thick and powerful and he doesn't get bullied but beyond that, there's not really much happening. He doesn't jump off athletically, doesn't bring a whole lot of pressure (just 16 all year compared to 25 last year) and generally, has kind of become the dreaded, "a guy." That's not to say teams don't need guys and Perry is still a fundamentally sound player, but the days of thinking he might be something more, are likely over.
Elliott caught everyone's attention this past preseason when he became Austin Davis' vision of death - racking up three sacks in just four plays versus the Rams quarterback. After securing a spot on the 53-man roster, Elliott was relegated mainly to special teams play, but was very good there and should see opportunities at linebacker in 2015.
Mulumba's ACL went boom in Game 2, putting the intriguing, and physically impressive linebacker on the shelf for the rest of the year. (sadface).
POSITIONAL GRADE: B
Matthews' shift to the inside throws a wrench into things, but Peppers' addition makes up for it. It was a very good performance from the starters, and we saw how much having good health makes a difference.