Don’t get me wrong. Clay Matthews is a fantastic pass rushing outside linebacker, but I was a little surprised when Mike McCarthy stated during his season wrap-up press conference that the team would be looking to move Matthews back outside. Sure Matthews puts up flashier numbers there, and, subsequently, I’m sure he’s much happier playing outside, but is the move in the best interest of the defense? I’m not sold on it.
To put it simply, I think that Clay’s skill set might be better suited to the middle. His best ability is his explosive tenacity. He flies around the field, screaming from one sideline to the other, making tackles all over the place. That’s exactly what the Packers have needed inside, which is why he was moved in the first place.
Matthews is a great pass rusher. I have little doubt that he’s the best pass rushing linebacker on the team. But I’m not convinced that he’s such an elite pass rusher that he must be put in a position primarily to collect sacks. It’s one thing if you have a once-in-a-lifetime pass rusher. You don’t forsake something like that. But in the case of Matthews, oughtn’t he to be lined up where it is most beneficial for the team?
The fact of the matter is that inside linebacker is still a giant question mark. Sam Barrington appears to be a decent starting inside guy with some power, but he’s started only 8 games in his career and is returning after missing nearly all of the 2015 season due to a foot injury. Right now, he’s the surest thing going on the inside. Next to him the Packers will likely go with some combination of second year Jake Ryan and rookie Blake Martinez.
Had the Packers brought in some veteran talent at inside linebacker (and I’m not saying that they should have) or drafted someone like Alabama’s Reggie Ragland or UCLA’s Myles Jack, moving Clay back outside may have made more sense. However, as it stands, the talent at inside linebacker does not seem significantly improved compared to the 2014 season when the Packers decided to move Clay to the middle in the first place.
Compare that lack of depth inside to the situation outside. Julius Peppers may be 36 years old, but that didn’t stop him from accumulating 10.5 sacks last year. Former first round pick Nick Perry has steadily improved. Jayrone Elliott’s lack of playing time has been criminal given his pass rushing skills in limited snaps. And now the Packers are moving former first round pick Datone Jones to their “elephant” defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid position. Add in 3rd round pick Kyler Fackrell and it isn’t as if Green Bay is running short on options at outside linebacker.
All of this is, of course, not to mention the fact that the Packers can and do utilize Matthews’ pass rushing abilities even when he’s playing inside. He is blitzed up the middle on first and second downs and is often moved toward the outside where he can blitz on 3rd and long, leaving a single linebacker inside for coverage (often Joe Thomas in 2015).
It remains to be seen how Matthews’ reversion back to his original position will impact the 2016 defense. Perhaps the Packers feel highly confident in Barrington, Ryan, and Blake, but the decision to move Clay back was announced before free agency and the NFL draft, before the Packers even knew what personnel they’d have at their disposal on the inside. For that reason, I worry that the move is being made to maximize a star player’s potential, rather than the potential of the defense as a unit.
Taylor O\'Neill is a Packer fan born and raised in Oshkosh, WI. He currently lives in Florida and is pursuing his PhD. Taylor is a writer with PackersTalk.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TaylorONeill87 for more Packer news.