Just over a week from training camp and we are almost through the Packers roster. We have covered six different position groups, and we get to one that has a lot of fans polarized: linebackers. With so many questions in the middle of that position, we have a lot to look at. So let’s not waste any more time.
#52 CLAY MATTHEWS
6’3” 215 lbs. Age 30 (8th Season)
Drafted in the 1st Round (26th Overall) in 2009 from USC
Strengths: Clay is a master pass rusher with every move imaginable. He can turn the corner and beat tackles with speed but can also drive a left tackle into his QB. He also has a good swim move and seems to live in the backfield when lined up outside. He also is a sound run defender and an underrated coverage guy with the speed to cover running backs in the flat. But his biggest strength is his passion and effort. He is a true high motor guy who is flying everywhere during the play.
Weaknesses: While he is high motor, his flying everywhere can sometimes be a detriment as he has gotten the reputation of losing backside contain often and sometimes getting caught up in the wash of the trench play. He also doesn’t have the smoothest hips in coverage and can get beat by the more agile running backs.
Underrated Attribute: Coverage
Role: Starting Right Outside Linebacker
Best Case: Matthews reverts to his 2009-2011 form and gets around 15 sacks and votes for Defensive Player of the Year and setting the Packers all-time sack record.
Worst Case: Matthews doesn’t adjust to moving back outside quick enough and becomes an average player early on before improving over the course of the season. Or he gets hurt and misses time.
Projection: Matthews will thrive in his role again outside and will be a Pro Bowler on merit with 12.5 sacks and a career high in tackles.
#56 JULIUS PEPPERS
6’7” 287 lbs. Age 36 (15th Season)
Signed as a Free Agent on March 15, 2014
Drafted in the 1st Round (2nd Overall) in 2002 from North Carolina
Strengths: Big Julius is a massive presence on the field and draws eyes from the quarterback wherever he lines up. Versatile, he can line up with his hand down as well as drop into coverage with his length. A tried and true technician in the pass rush, he has a wide range of moves from the bull rush to an excellent selling of a stunt to get pressure. He also is stout in run support and has a knack for knocking down passes on the line.
Weaknesses: Age is starting to get to the vet and he can’t be on the field as much as he used to. He also has lost a step and doesn’t quite have that speed rush that he had in Carolina and Chicago. He also can be beat by the more agile backs due to his size.
Underrated Attribute: Intelligence
Role: Starting Outside Linebacker, nickel and dime lineman
Best Case: Pepper plays like 2014 where he had a resurgent season, and get 7-10 sacks and end his career on a high note.
Worst Case: Pepper’s age shows dramatically and he takes a major step back in production and loses time to Nick Perry, Jayrone Elliott, and Datone Jones at linebacker.
Projection: Peppers will have a good year on the end while grooming Perry to be his successor. He will put up around 7 sacks and block 2 kicks with 1 interception. He then retires and becomes an assistant coach with the team working with Winston Moss.
#47 JAKE RYAN
6’2” 240 lbs. Age 24 (2nd Season)
Drafted in the 4th Round (129th Overall) in 2015 from Michigan
Strengths: An instinctive, productive middle linebacker, Ryan is usually always in the right position and a sound tackler. Assignment sure, Ryan is likely to wear the communication helmet with the green dot and become a leader of the defense much like AJ Hawk was. A blue collar player who plays with high energy and can roam sideline to sideline in run support.
Weaknesses: Short arms hurt him when he gets engaged by blockers and was stiff in coverage last year. Also had moments where he seemed lost in space and got turned around by the play. Still inexperienced, only started five games, which can hurt when he’s expected to be the lead inside ‘backer this season.
Underrated Attribute: Gap responsibility
Role: Starting middle linebacker, on-field leader.
Best Case: Ryan makes a big jump his sophomore NFL season and becomes an AJ Hawk like player with more speed. He makes 150 tackles and shows growth to be a focal point of the defense for the future.
Worst Case: We get improvement but not enough for him to be “the guy” at middle linebacker. He is solid but more like later career AJ Hawk.
Projection: Ryan will be a consistent performer and will learn a lot from Clay Matthews when it comes to effort and his play diagnosis. He will top 100 tackles and be that guy who we don’t ever pay enough attention to and still produces.
#50 BLAKE MARTINEZ
6’2” 237 lbs. Age 22 (Rookie)
Drafted in the 4th Round (131st Overall) in 2016 from Stanford
Strengths: Athletic inside linebacker with underrated coverage skills. Rated very highly in coverage from PFF his last year at Stanford and is a good enough athlete to have that continue in Green Bay. Quick burst player (4.2 second 20 yard shuttle), Martinez can fly through the hole to make a tackle and explodes through the ball carrier. Great balance with his teammates in that he is great at keeping backside contain and limiting cutbacks. Also a great worker with high character. Is always around the ball.
Weaknesses: Good in coverage, but can be limited laterally and can be beaten by opposing linemen if they engage quickly. Smaller for a linebacker, especially at 6’2” and can be driven off the ball if not able to set his base quick enough.
Underrated Attribute: Gap control
Role: Coverage Inside Linebacker, Special Teams Warrior, eventual starter
Best Case: Martinez wins the starting job in camp and teams with Ryan to be the future at the position for the Packers. He gets around 100 tackles and cements his role in the sub packages with strong coverage against tight ends and running backs.
Worst Case: Martinez doesn’t acclimate quickly and becomes a special teams guy for most of the season and in some of the sub packages.
Projection: Martinez is a blue collar player with plenty of talent. He dropped due to his size and what some perceive as a lack of quickness. He is a playmaker who will be a solid player from Day 1 of camp and become a 16 game starter.
#58 SAM BARRINGTON
6’1” 240 lbs. Age 25 (4th Season)
Drafted in the 7th Round (232nd Overall) in 2013 from South Florida
Strengths: A downfield thumper, Barrington shares a lot of similarities to Desmond Bishop. Built for run support, Barrington is arguably the biggest hitter on the team and makes running backs pay for running at him. He can shed blocks pretty well and has gotten better in coverage over his career. Barrington also has extremely high character and leaves it all on the field, never taking a play off.
Weaknesses: Barrington, while improving, still needs work in coverage. Can get turned around on good route running and isn’t very fluid in space. He also carries significant injury risk after suffering season ending injuries in 2013 and 2015.
Underrated Attribute: Power
Role: Starting Base 3-4 Linebacker, Running down player.
Best Case: Barrington returns from his injury with a vengeance and seizes the other starting role and never relinquishes it, becoming a leader on the field and recording career highs in every single category.
Worst Case: His re-acclimation to the defense is slow and he is passed by Martinez, becoming a two-down linebacker and special teams guy.
Projection: I expect Barrington to be the guy in the base defense with the run stuffers and be a special teams cannonball that obliterates everything in his way during kicks.
#53 NICK PERRY
6’3” 265 lbs. Age 26 (5th Season)
Drafted in the 1st Round (28th Overall) in 2012 from USC
Strengths: Perry is a powerful player with an exceptional bull rush that can push any blocker back into his quarterback at any given time. He also is a stout player against the run, possibly the best among the linebackers. He holds the edge well and sheds blocks solidly to make tackles at the line. Perry is also a tireless worker who gives it his all on every play.
Weaknesses: Perry is limited by his frame and style. His bull rush is his only plus pass rush move and so he can be defeated by a strongly anchored lineman. He also is a liability in coverage with stiff hips and a lack of lateral quickness. He also has been facing nagging injuries his entire career and is only now participating in his first full camp.
Underrated Attribute: Run Defense
Role: Rotational Linebacker, Pass Rusher
Best Case: Perry finally breaks out on his prove it contract, picking up 7-10 sacks and establishing himself as the player Ted Thompson envisioned when he was drafted back in 2012. He signs long term in Green Bay to team up with Clay Matthews as Julius Pepper’s replacement.
Worst Case: Perry deals with injuries again that hamper his production and he doesn’t stand out, recording 2-4 sacks and not making any impact. The team then decides to let him go in free agency.
Projection: I still am high on Perry as a player. I think his work ethic and strength help him become a good player and a piece of the defense for a long time. He won’t put up massive Matthews-like numbers, but 6-8 sacks and a large amount of hurries and quarterback hits will help him greatly.
#91 JAYRONE ELLIOTT
6’3” 255 lbs. Age 24 (3rd Season)
Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent on May 12, 2014 from Toledo
Strengths: A natural, instinctive pass rusher, Jayrone Elliott has all the moves you want in an outside linebacker. A quick first step, good bend around the edge, and a good counter all feature prominently in his repertoire. He also is solid against the run and great on special teams, factoring into the play whenever he is on the field. He also has a knack for the big play, especially after his performance against Seattle last year.
Weaknesses: Elliott is still relatively inexperienced on defense as he hasn’t seen a ton of snaps outside of special teams, and he can be beaten by stronger tackles. He is long and lanky but doesn’t always play with great pad level once he engages tackles.
Underrated Attribute: Zone Coverage, Route Recognition
Role: Pass Rush specialist, special teams leader.
Best Case: Elliott breaks out in a big way, leaping over Perry in the depth chart and becoming the go-to third down specialist recording a big sack number while cementing his role for the future.
Worst Case: Elliott continues to be what he has been the past two seasons, a solid pass rusher and a dynamite special teamer.
Projection: Elliott has a pretty high floor and we have seen some great flashes from him. I am loving this depth and Elliott should have a great year as a situational guy with around 5 sacks and 2-3 forced fumbles.
#51 KYLER FACKRELL
6’5” 245 lbs. Age 24 (Rookie)
Drafted in the 3rd Round (88th Overall) in 2016 from Utah State
Strengths: One of the best athletes in the draft at linebacker, Fackrell has all the tools needed to be a star in this league. With exceptional length and burst he can close gaps and make tackles from out nowhere. Good strength and can tackle any runner with reckless abandon. Fackrell also has good talent in coverage and is able to hang with tight ends and running backs. As a pass rusher, Fackrell can turn the corner as well as drive blockers back and keep tackles from getting their hands on him with his length.
Weaknesses: Fackrell is old for a rookie and that might limit his development, and he is very lean which can hurt him with power blockers. He also can get driven up high and back when he doesn’t make a great counter. Also had an ACL injury in 2014.
Underrated Attribute: Coverage
Role: Special Teams, coverage linebacker, situational pass rusher
Best Case: Fackrell develops quickly in camp and starts to take snaps from Jayrone Elliott and Nick Perry, becoming Julius Pepper’s heir apparent at outside linebacker. He also gets time in coverage and records a couple interceptions.
Worst Case: Fackrell is caught in a numbers game and doesn’t see the field much on defense. He plays a lot of special teams.
Projection: Fackrell is an intriguing talent who draws a lot of comparisons to guys like Connor Barwin and Paul Kruger, and if he can do that early on in his career, he’ll be something to look out for. But in 2016, he will get some time on defense but will be a key special teamer with at least one blocked kick.
#55 LERENTEE McCRAY
6’2” 246 lbs. Age 25 (4th Season)
Signed as a Free Agent on April 18, 2016
Originally Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent by Denver on April 30, 2013 from Florida
Strengths: McCray is a versatile player who can play all over the linebacking corps, and shows good bend around the corner. Plays with good leverage and has a knack for jarring the ball loose. He also has great hands that can drive linemen back and can open up counters well. Plays with great balance against cut blocks and is adequate in coverage and can make plays there.
Weaknesses: McCray did have a serious ankle injury his rookie year. He also is inexperienced and hasn’t started a single game yet in his career. Still needs some work on his counter, and can be beaten if the blocker gets the first punch.
Underrated Attribute: Burst off the snap.
Role: Special teams, occasional pass rush
Best Case: McCray’s best case would be that he doesn’t see the field much due to the lack of injuries above him. He has talent but is likely at best a rotational rusher and special teams force.
Worst Case: McCray flashes potential but doesn’t outplay guys below him like Carl Bradford and Beniquez Brown and is a camp casualty.
Projection: With Datone Jones playing more linebacker and Beniquez Brown and Bradford being smaller I have McCray as the final linebacker to make the team but that can change as camp progresses. It is really close between him, Brown, and Bradford for that spot. If he makes the team, he’ll make his living on special teams.
#43 BENIQUEZ BROWN
6’1” 236 lbs. Age 23 (Rookie)
Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent on May 6, 2016 from Mississippi State
Strengths: Good run defender who plays at the line of scrimmage well and can lay the hammer on running backs. A great communicator who is always in sync with his teammates and a neverending motor are some of his greatest tools. Provides sideline to sideline ability and makes good tackles in space.
Weaknesses: Brown isn’t the best athlete at ILB and can be sealed off on trap plays. He needs to improve his play recognition and his first step. Can be knocked off balance and out of the play easier than he should.
Underrated Attribute: Hitting Power
Role: Special teams, backup middle linebacker.
Best Case: Brown is a tweener who is undersized and doesn’t always play at the right speed. At his best he can be similar to a poor-man’s Zach Thomas. He becomes the top special teams linebacker.
Worst Case: Brown’s weaknesses and adjustment to the speed of the NFL are too much for him to recover and he is a camp casualty on final cut day.
Projection: Brown has talent and was a highly sought after free agent after the draft. He will make some plays but unfortunately will be one of the final cuts. He will, however, end up on the practice squad with a shot in 2017 to make it.
#54 CARL BRADFORD
6’1” 248 lbs. Age 23 (3rd Season)
Drafted in the 4th Round (121st Overall) in 2014 from Arizona State
Strengths: A good athlete who is transitioning to the inside linebacker position, Bradford is an extremely hard worker and has made leaps and bounds from his rookie season. High motor player who will throw his body around with reckless abandon, Bradford has the drive to be the best. Has potential as a pass rusher from the middle and can run good stunts. Still young at 23, there is talent there.
Weaknesses: Undersized as an outside guy, Bradford is behind the curve as an inside guy and is facing a loss of confidence from the staff. Has short arms and can get swallowed up in the wash. Never really made an impact despite being a draftee and getting numerous opportunities in the past two camps.
Underrated Attribute: Motor
Role: Special teamer, backup ILB
Best Case: Bradford finally puts it all together and becomes the guy the team hoped they’d get when they drafted. He makes the team and is active for every game becoming a core special teamer and a poor man’s Nick Barnett in the middle.
Worst Case: Bradford never gets it together and ends up being a wash out as a former fourth round pick.
Projection: I’m torn here. I can give the final spot to McCray, Brown, or Bradford and will probably change my mind numerous times throughout camp. I right now have Bradford on the outside looking in with another year on the practice squad and a great opportunity next year to make it.
#48 JOE THOMAS
6’1” 227 lbs. Age 25 (2nd Season)
Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent on May 12, 2014 from South Carolina State
Strengths: One of the better coverage linebackers on the team, Thomas got the role in the dime package last year and held his own. Has good speed and quickness in space and can hang with tight ends and running backs. Assignment sure and a solid tackler who is usually in the right spot.
Weaknesses: Severely undersized and can be caught in traffic. Doesn’t wrap up as well as he can at times and can be broken in space by good footwork. Not a good run defender.
Underrated Attribute: Awareness
Role: Coverage linebacker, special teams
Best Case: Thomas makes the team again based on his coverage skills and resumes his dime coverage role.
Worst Case: Thomas falls behind after the team brought in good coverage guys like Blake Martinez and Kyler Fackrell and he ends up a camp casualty before catching on somewhere else.
Projection: Thomas is a solid guy to have for depth but the Packers have really worked on the position with the draft and signing of McCray. I don’t see Thomas realistically making the team, but he will catch on somewhere else like Oakland or Carolina.
#46 REGGIE GILBERT
6’3” 261 lbs. Age 23 (Rookie)
Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent on May 6, 2016 from Arizona
Strengths: A converted defensive end, Gilbert has the size you want for a run stuffing OLB/DE hybrid. A solid all around prospect, he has good lateral movement and balance that holds up well. Keeps feet moving well and uses his hands effectively.
Weaknesses: Converting to a new position and is limited in the flat. Doesn’t close particularly fast and can be knocked from the play by a single blocker at times. Doesn’t have much of a speed rush, purely strength at this point.
Underrated Attribute: Balance
Role: Tweener LB and rotational run stopper
Best Case: Gilbert shines in camp and gets the final spot as a developmental prospect.
Worst Case: Gilbert’s adjustment takes too long for a team looking to contend now and he doesn’t make it past first cuts.
Projection: Gilbert has potential as a tweener guy who can be incredibly versatile. But he needs time. That is why he doesn’t make the team but ends up on the practice squad to get quicker and play with better speed.
#45 MANOA PIKULA
6’1” 234 lbs. Age 23 (Rookie)
Signed as an Undrafted Free Agent on May 6, 2016 from BYU
Strengths: A good tackler, Pikula plays well in space and finds a way to avoid blockers. Can make the play in space and plays with good agility and burst.
Weaknesses: Undersized and can be swallowed up if he gets in too deep before the lanes open for him to get through. Doesn’t have a signature trait and is kind of a “jack of all trade, master of none” type.
Underrated Attribute: Vision
Role: Practice squad candidate
Best Case: Pikula is still lacking in size and athleticism to make the team this year but got great coaching in college and can make an impact if he bulks up. He is a prime candidate for the practice squad.
Worst Case: His size is a detriment to his development and he never stands out, becoming one of the early cuts in camp.
Projection: Pikula is limited and could be something in time so he would be worth the risk on a rebuilding team, but there simply isn’t enough space on the 75-man roster after the third preseason game for him. He gets cut there.
First Cuts: Pikula
Final Cuts: Gilbert, Thomas, Bradford (PS), Brown (PS)
Making the Team: Matthews, Peppers, Ryan, Martinez, Barrington, Perry, Elliott, Fackrell, McCray
We now sit at 41 spots being taken on the roster with only the secondary (Wednesday) and specialists (Saturday) to go. Also, nine practice squad spots are claimed with the secondary remaining. So one secondary member will end up on the Squad. Stay tuned to find out who that is and who makes the roster.——————
Mike Wendlandt is originally from Iola, Wisconsin and graduated from Drake University in 2015 with a degree in History. With a significant journalism background both in writing and broadcasting, Mike can be heard as the play-by-play voice of Central Wisconsin High School sports on WDUX FM 92.7 and on Twitter @MikeWendlandt.
Mike Wendlandt is a writer covering the Green Bay Packers for PackersTalk.com.