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Packers 2017 free-agent outside linebackers: Nick Perry carries hefty price tag

Nick Perry's big season should net him a lucrative multi-year deal.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin-USA TODAY Sports

Today, Acme Packing Company continues the examination of the Green Bay Packers’ 2016 roster. Each day over the next two weeks, we will break down a different position on the roster with examinations of the players on the 53-man roster in 2016, the contributions of new additions and players who signed new contracts, and players who have contracts expiring this offseason.

By raw numbers, no part of the Green Bay defense could lose as many players as the outside linebackers. Though it seems reasonable to expect some to return, any of the four free agents could realistically depart this offseason. Given the deterioration of the pass rush over the course of the season, the Packers can't afford to lose their best free-agent outside linebacker, a player just entering his prime.

Nick Perry

Free-agent status: Unrestricted
Experience: Five years
2016 statistics: 52 tackles, 11 sacks
Expiring contract: One-year, $5 million deal

Clay Matthews provided the Packers with elite pass rushing for the better part of a decade, but he can no longer dominate offensive linemen as he once did. In most situations, such a decline could have sunk a defense that also dealt with considerable attrition.

Fortunately for the Packers, Nick Perry stepped into that role and excelled. Playing on a prove-it deal, Perry led the team in sacks and total pressures while also improving the team's run defense (at least until a hand injury force him to play with a club). At only 26, he arguably becomes the top edge rusher in the 2017 free-agent class.

As such, the Packers have to make a compelling, long-term offer in order to retain Perry. While cap space remains plentiful in Green Bay, the team might have some concerns about committed so much to a player that, even in his breakout season, suffered a significant injury. Still, given the alternatives, re-signing Perry ranks as one of the top priorities for the team this offseason.

Julius Peppers

Free-agent status: Unrestricted
Experience: 15 years
2016 statistics: 23 tackles, 7 ½ sacks, two forced fumbles
Expiring contract: One-year, $5 million deal

Julius Peppers' third year in Green Bay saw the outside linebacker play fewer snaps than in either of his previous two seasons. While that affected some of his final numbers, he remained an effective pass rusher, adding enough sacks to pass the 140 mark for his career. Now a free agent, Peppers could field multiple offers from suitors.

Whether the Packers have interest remains to be seen. After the defense's sluggish finish to the season, the team might prefer to turn over the position to younger players. At 37 and with an increasingly diminished role, Peppers could find himself on the outs in Green Bay.

Regardless, Peppers could also decide to call it a career. After 15 seasons, the future Hall of Famer has little if anything left to prove. While Peppers certainly has the ability to continue terrorizing offenses, he also has the option to walk away on his own terms while still an impactful player.

Datone Jones

Free-agent status: Unrestricted
Experience: Four years
2016 statistics: 22 tackles, one sack
Expiring contract: Four-year, $7,716,599 deal

Datone Jones spent most of the first three seasons of his career as an interior defender in Dom Capers' 3-4 defense. That changed in 2016 when the team asked him to slim down as part of a transition to outside linebacker. Jones did play with his hand in the dirt on occasion, but he primarily served as an edge rusher for the first time in his professional career.

Statistically, the position change looks somewhat underwhelming. Jones finished with his lowest sack total despite appearing in all but one game and frequently disappeared from games despite significant snap counts. At the same time, previous defensive-line-to-linebacker conversions such as Mike Neal's have taken more than a year to yield great results. Perhaps like Perry, Jones could benefit from a prove-it deal and another year in his new role.

Jayrone Elliott

Free-agent status: Restricted
Experience: Three years
2016 statistics: 19 tackles, one sack
Expiring contract: Three-year, $1,535,000 deal

One of the numerous undrafted free agents to become a preseason star for the Packers, Jayrone Elliott has spent most of his regular seasons on special teams. That remained the case in 2016 when he registered few plays and limited production on defense.

Green Bay could retain Elliott for a minimal investment. Because he has just three accrued seasons under his belt, Elliott can receive a restricted-free-agent tender at either the first-round, second-round, and original-round level. If the team chooses to tender him, it would most likely do so at the lowest level.

Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He covers the NFL for Sports on Earth and SB Nation. He also serves as the senior writer and editor for Acme Packing Company, a Green Bay Packers blog.