Offseason organized team activity practices and the mandatory minicamp were almost in the books when Mike McCarthy said what he did.
“I felt probably that 2010 linebacker group was the deepest group that I’ve ever been around as a head coach,” the Packers coach said. “And this year’s group definitely has a chance to champion that. You never have enough good football players.”
A few days later, the Packers decided to part ways with veteran inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, meaning they’d have one fewer good football player – albeit one coming off an injury that cost him the entire 2012 season – at their disposal. One would think McCarthy knew that move was in the offing when he made his comment, which means that McCarthy has a lot of faith in some unproven players at the position.
For while the Packers’ starting four linebackers are set for 2013 – Clay Matthews and Nick Perry on the outside and A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones inside – the players behind them are a largely unproven and young lot.
Inside, Robert Francois, Jamari Lattimore, Terrell Manning and rookie seventh-round pick Sam Barrington are the next men up, while the offseason departures of Erik Walden – he of the stunning four-year, $16 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts – and Frank Zombo leaves Dezman Moses as the only outside linebacker with any game experience. Rookie sixth-round pick Nate Palmer, undrafted rookie free agent Andy Mulumba and defensive end turned part-time outside linebacker Mike Neal are in the mix there. Jones and Lattimore are ex-outside linebackers who could provide insurance as well.
“I can’t complain. I’ve got some great guys,” inside linebackers coach and assistant head coach Winston Moss said of the depth inside. “We’ve worked together for a long time. We have Robert, we have Jamari, we have Brad, we have some guys that have some great length and great potential. You have Robert, who has that big body and likes to play the run. You have Brad, who is so versatile. You have Jamari, who has the big upside. You have Manning, who’s that really young player who wants to learn and wants to be impactful. Same thing with Sam. It’s a really good group and they’re working their asses off to try to make this thing the best that they can make it.”
The key word in that 110-word answer, of course, is potential. The Packers will always be counting on young players to realize their potential; it’s vital to the draft-and-develop approach that young players mature and contribute quickly. Outside, they are in a similar predicament, although if their pair of former first-round picks from USC – Matthews in 2009 and Perry in 2012 – stay healthy, it won’t be an issue.
“I think they’re all fine kids,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. “They listen. You can see they’re implementing the fundamentals and techniques that I’m teaching them. They’re fine young men and I’m looking forward to them strapping it up and playing.”
The problem is that linebacker is a position where players frequently miss time. While Hawk played all 18 games (including playoffs) last season, Bishop missed the entire year with a ruptured hamstring tendon; his replacement, D.J. Smith, went down after six games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee (like Bishop, he was cut this offseason); Perry’s wrist injury suffered in the season-opener eventually required surgery and ended his season after six games; and Matthews’ pesky hamstring cost him four games after causing him to miss only two games in his first three seasons.
Thus, McCarthy’s statement about the depth at the position could be tested. So too could his new focus on causing fumbles, given that only Matthews (10 forced fumbles in regular- and post-season play) has shown a knack for it and the team has been among the league’s worst in that category. Last season, the Packers forced just eight fumbles, tied for 29th in the 32-team NFL (only Indianapolis and Baltimore caused fewer).
Hawk has forced only two career fumbles and hasn’t forced one since 2007; Jones forced the first fumble of his four-year career last season against Jacksonville; Moses forced a fumble against Detroit on Nov. 18; and Perry’s only forced fumble last season, on a devastating sack of Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck, was nullified by his roughing-the-passer penalty.
Moss, who runs most ball security drills in practice, has been charged with overseeing the application of the new emphasis, and it starts with Hawk and Jones inside.
“I’ll put it to you this way: Since the coach, coach McCarthy, has made it a point of emphasis and he’s clearly been able to establish that in his team meeting, I am only sort of the liaison, the facilitator,” Moss said. “It’s been fun to watch the guys buy in, because obviously they believe in what coach McCarthy is talking about. So it’s fun to get on the field, it’s fun to see those guys buy into what he’s talking about from an emphasis standpoint.
“We need to address it because we do have the opportunity based upon our scheme where we have the opportunity to get the ball out – whether it’s the quarterback, whether it’s the ballcarrier, the receiver. Let’s get the ball out. we’re going to make an emphasis of that and see if those guys respond from a production standpoint. It’s great to be running around in practice and doing some good stuff, but it would be something to see from a stats standpoint our numbers jump to where they’re in the top tier of the NFL.”
McCarthy cited a statistic that 48 percent of all fumbles, then admitted that he was flummoxed by the fact that his team registered 47 sacks last season but didn’t cause more fumbles. Now, the hope is that an even greater emphasis on pressure creation will lead to more turnovers. A healthy Perry and the wrinkle of using Neal as a stand-up pass rusher could help.
“(Perry) looks really good. Really good. Explosive as ever. When he strikes that pad in individual periods, he strikes it,” Greene said. “He has it physically to do what it takes to play at a high level at this position. He’s hungry. Great work ethic. He is tuned in.”
As for the Neal experiment, Greene said, “Obviously, he’s learning a lot of new things at outside linebacker in our Okie. Just increasing his vision, whereas before he never really had to understand where all five eligibles are and what that means to him. So, his biggest thing is expanding his vision and understanding what everybody means to his job. It’s repetitions – and that’s true with anybody transitioning to this position. You just need more reps, you need more time in cleats on the grass and seeing things and making mistakes and learning from them.”
Meanwhile, the Packers will count on Matthews not only to continue to get to the passer, but take on a greater leadership role on his side of the ball. With Charles Woodson’s release on Feb.15, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett is the most experienced player in the defensive meeting room, but Matthews is the most accomplished.
“I think it’s just the natural progression of leadership on this team. Obviously the more comfortable I am in this scheme and the longer I’m here, the longer tenured I am, the more I have to take that leadership opportunity – especially in light of all that has happened in the offseason with Charles Woodson departing and the new contract,” Matthews said. “(That’s) showing trust in my leadership and ability on the field, so you’re going to see that. Especially in light of the last few years our defense, we’re trying to turn it around and get this thing back to where we were when we had a Super Bowl run.”
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Will Matthews take his game to even greater heights?
With his five-year, $66 million contract, Matthews is being paid like a superstar. And it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t been one already, with four straight Pro Bowl selections, 50 career sacks (including 7.5 in eight playoff games) and more forced fumbles (10, including playoffs) than anyone on a defensive unit starving for them. Where does he go from here? If Matthews can stay healthy – while he missed four games last season, he had only missed two in his career to that point – coach Mike McCarthy likes to say the Packers are a different defense with him on the field. Now, he must become one of those transcendent superstars who carries a team.
On the rise
The Packers dumped not one but two players who were solid starters for them in Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith – Bishop having been more than just solid – because they believed in Jones, whom they signed to a three-year, $11.75 million deal to bring back as the starter alongside Hawk. Certainly Bishop and Smith had injury concerns that contributed to their being jettisoned, but the Packers likely would have been more willing to take a chance on one or both recovering had they not had such faith in Jones. Now, he must not only show that he was worth paying – and keeping over the other two players – but that he’s capable of being a difference-maker.
Player to watch
Perry seemed to be turning a corner as he started to figure out how to play the outside linebacker position after playing defensive end in college, and then his season ended with a wrist injury that he initially played through before needing surgery. The Packers need him to deliver at a higher level than what they got from the position last year from Erik Walden. Perry showed up at the offseason program looking slimmer and saying he’d dropped “a couple pounds.” It’s easy to forget that he was the team’s first-round pick a year ago, given the Packers’ next-man-up mantra. The question now is how much the injury stunted his growth at the position.
Top backup jobs.
Dezman Moses, who played more than 600 snaps last season, enters camp as the No. 3 outside linebacker, a position that clearly is vital to the 3-4 scheme. And by dumping Bishop and Smith – not even keeping them on in backup roles – the Packers are counting on Manning, Lattimore and Francois as their top backups inside. Of those, only Francois has started a game, but Manning is an intriguing prospect after his rookie season was derailed by a training-camp illness that set him back. And by letting the oft-injured Frank Zombo walk as a restricted free agent who wasn’t tendered, the Packers look perilously thin there, although Lattimore could be a swing backup as both an inside and outside player.
Even though he missed four games and only played 752 regular-season snaps and still finished fifth in the league in sacks with 13, and Matthews also has the fifth-most sacks (42.5) in the NFL since he entered the league as a first-round pick in 2009. The players ahead of him? Minnesota’s Jared Allen (59.5), Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware (57.5), Kansas City’s Tamba Hali (44.0) and Miami’s Cameron Wake (43.0).
“He’s just an unbelievable teacher, man. He’s very passionate about the game. He stresses things and understands exactly what guys need to push them. Overall, he’s just a great teacher and great motivator. His passion for the game allows guys to learn from him quickly. It’s just a pleasure to be able to learn from him. I don’t know too many other coaches who played 15 years at the position, so if he says it, it’s pretty much valid.” – Moses, on outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene.
Next: Defensive backs.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.