The Packers are in an interesting spot at OLB. Their best defensive player is an outside linebacker by trade, and one of the best in the business. The defense is markedly different when he’s not on the field. You needn’t look any further than the NFC Championship game for evidence of that. While Clay Matthews was going through the concussion protocol, a defense that had shut down the Seahawks attack all day long fell completely to pieces. The big problem is that he’s so far and away the best linebacker on the team that the Packers have to use him inside on running downs.
Like I wrote last week, the Packers have to make big changes at inside linebacker. Whether or not Matthews is a part of it is an interesting proposition. Having Matthews play inside in the base defense is a positive on two levels. Matthews aggressiveness and speed are best utilized attacking a running back. That same attitude actually makes him an average edge run defender. It’s easy to get CM3 to chase RB on read-option.
The reason that the CM3 to part-time ILB thing worked is because of the presence of Julius Peppers and the emergence of Nick Perry. The outside linebacker position looks like it’s in great shape on the surface, but look a little deeper and you’ll realize that if Peppers comes back for 2015 it will likely be his final year in Green Bay. You’ll then realize that Nick Perry, Mike Neal and Andy Mulumba are all playing on expiring contracts in 2015.
Class Strength: 8/10
It’s always interesting to evaluate a class of pass rushers when you’re doing it for a 3-4 team. There are certainly plenty of teams in the league that use an odd front, that isn’t the issue, but classifying edge rushers is always difficult. Alabama famously plays a 3-4 but so far hasn’t done a great job of producing effective NFL OLBs. Oregon plays a 3-4 as well but most of the top 25 college programs play a 4 man front.
Shane Ray, Dante Fowler Jr, Randy Gregory and Vic Beasley are the big 4 pass rushers that I believe can play outside in a 3-4 in the NFL. Everyone in that group besides Vic Beasley played defensive end in college and would have to “adjust”. I believe all of those 4 players are going to be taken in the top 20, and all of those players will be day 1 starters.
The next tier is interesting too. Eli Harold of Virginia and Nate Orchard of of Utah are more DE conversions, but they both have ideal size for the position and were productive at Virginia. Danielle Hunter from LSU is long and lean and is another player at 6’6″ who could make the switch. Hau’oli Kikaha actually played OLB in college is the University of Washington’s all time leader in sacks. None of the players from this group are guaranteed 1st round picks and at least one of them could possibly make it to Saturday without being selected.
Late round picks that might make an impact include Xzavier Dickson from Alabama and Tony Washington from Oregon. Small school studs Kyle Emanuel (18.5 sacks as a senior) of North Dakota State and Zach Wagenmann of Montana are college defensive ends that at around 6’3″ 250 should probably play OLB in the pros.
All in all, this class of pass rushers has pop at the top and, in my opinion, quality throughout.
Packers Positional Situation: B
When he’s healthy, Clay Matthews is one of the 3 or 4 best 3-4 outside linebackers in the league. He’s a “field-tilter” and completely changes the way that the defense operates when he’s not on the field. His production at outside linebacker will probably be more augmented by the Packers finding decent answers inside, but as the roster sits right now he may have to continue to roam.
Julius Peppers was a revelation a season ago. It made a lot of fans nervous when the team announced that the Packers biggest free agent acquisition in a number of years was not only 34 years old, but was going to be asked to switch positions. Peppers did so, and did so masterfully. After a rough week 1 performance against the Seahawks he settled in and finished the season with 8.5 sacks and graded out (PFF) as the Packers second best defender and the #7 3-4 OLB in all of football. Not bad for an old man. The problem with Peppers is how much longer he’s going to be a Packer. Whether or not he is restructured or released before this season, it’s hard to see him being a part of things in 2016.
Packers Level of Need at OLB: 4/10
The best player on the Packers defense plays outside linebacker. The other outside linebacker is a Hall of Famer. Nick Perry is showing flashes and might just have a monster season in 2015. Mike Neal is passable. The team also has young, talented options in Adrian Hubbard and Jayrone Elliot. The need isn’t immediate, but long term you can certainly see that it might be necessary. If Perry, Neal and Peppers are all gone after 2015 and Hubbard and Elliot aren’t ready to contribute all of a sudden there’s no one opposite Clay Matthews again. Not only that, but there’s no one to play outside if they move Clay inside.
The Packers often address issues a year before they come up. I believe this was attempted in the 4th round of last season’s draft with the selection of Carl Bradford. It appears as though that experiment isn’t going to work out, at least not on the edge. Just because other positions might seem like they are more important going into 2015 don’t be surprised if Ted Thompson selects an edge defender highly in anticipation of 2016.
Round to Start Targeting OLB: Round 2
Honestly, I’d prefer if the Packers didn’t select an edge defender in round one if his name isn’t Vic Beasley. After that, all bets are off. If they can get one of the guys that I’ve listed in that “second tier” sometime on Friday, by all means, draft away. There’s a decent chance that a 2016 starter at OLB might be taken in this draft so I’d be foolish not to be at least interested.
I get it, everyone’s going to be nervous if we get to Saturday and the team didn’t take an inside linebacker. I’ll be nervous too. Despite what’s gone on in Green Bay for the last few seasons, inside linebackers are much easier to find than effective edge defenders. Strictly based on positional value you might see the Packers address OLB first.
My Favorite Fit for the Packers: Danielle Hunter, LSU
Julius Peppers was fantastic this past season. His length and athleticism cannot be understated, and created a new hybrid DE/OLB position where he was allowed to play with his hand in the dirt. The Packers haven’t had long, athletic LBs across from Clay Matthews in the past. They’ve been 6’3″ or shorter and more bulky than they are long (think Nick Perry and Frank Zombo).
Danielle Hunter is tall, not Julius Peppers tall, but he’s all of 6’6″. He played defensive end in college but projects more realistically to being a 3-4 OLB in the pros. In no way am I predicting Hunter ends up to be the player that Peppers was and is, but his frame and skills relate to the hybrid position that Peppers seems to have created.
The other important factor that leads me to pick Hunter is that he might actually be available. He reminds me a lot of his former teammate Barkevious Mingo. Both players are long and lean and coming out of LSU didn’t have great sack numbers. If the Packers can snag him in some time on Friday (especially if it’s in round 3) I’d be very, very excited.
Other options: Hau’oli Kikaha, Max Valles, Kyle Emanuel