When thinking about the linebacker corps this year, a couple things come to mind. One, that the Packers draft reminds me of last year’s draft when they picked defensive backs in back-to-back rounds. This year the Packers stacked the linebacker position with Kyler Fackrell and Blake Martinez in rounds 3 and 4. Second, that the Packers have Sam Barrington coming back fresh after missing most of the 2015 campaign and hopefully healthy if all goes well. Those two factors alone make me more confident in the decision (announced just after the season was over) to move Clay Matthews back outside.
The Packers will once again look to Barrington in the middle as the veteran incumbent but Jake Ryan did some good things down the stretch so if he continues to perform, it will make for an interesting camp. I think Blake Martinez may be making up for some lacking physicals with his enthusiasm but I can’t help but think his attitude lines up with guys like Mike Daniels and can’t wait to see if he can be a difference maker at the next level. I also think Kyler Fackrell is going to be a good pickup as a long-term guy that can develop on the outside. I don’t expect to see much of Fackrell this year though unless the Packers have plans to try him on the inside, or if they use him in rotation to keep the OLB’s healthy for the long stretch after the bye.
But a couple questions still remain with this linebacking corps…
1. Can they remain stout against the run without Clay Matthews in the middle?
Looking at the stat line for the Packers versus Vikings game at Lambeau at the end of last season, the Packers won in virtually every category…they just couldn’t score. Priority one for any defensive coordinator is to stop the run and with Adrian Peterson carrying the ball, this is a tall task for any defense. The Packers held AD to just 67 yards on 19 carries (three and a half yards a carry!) and a long of ten yards. Can they have this kind of performance without Clay in the middle? I have that second game of the season (you know where we open the new Vikings stadium) circled in this regard. The Vikings are going to want to highlight their only true superstar and if they have success early, they will ground and pound us all day. But if the Packers can continue to hold AD at bay…well, that leads to my next question.
2. Can the Packers LB’s cover receivers/TE’s when needed?
While the Vikings will continue to lean on Peterson, we all know they will want test the treads on Laquon Treadwell also. The Vikings moved in this draft to give Teddy Bridgewater more weapons and if the Vikings struggle in the run, guys like Treadwell could draw enough attention to cause matchup problems for the tight ends if a safety is required to cover over the top. Rest assured, that is exactly the game-plan the Vikings will have if the Packers stop the run. And looking at this roster, I think there is still a huge question mark as to whether the Packers will be able to handle match zone, much less man-to-man if that is the case.
Barrington can be the thumper and I like his downhill style of play, Ryan did some good things and with a year under his belt, could take the next step, and Martinez is another thick, throwback linebacker that could lend some attitude to the middle. But here’s the thing…the thumper linebacker, being a throwback, is a throwback to years gone by, not NFL present. The league now requires even inside linebackers to have great lateral ability and fluid enough hips to cover and none of our current guys seem to have those traits. This is a concern.
Of course, the best remedy for that is a great pass-rush. And with Clay back on the outside and Julius and Daniels and perhaps some good play out of the rookie Kenny Clark, we could have that. But if we don’t, the Packers’ opponents are going to be hard after match-ups with our linebackers and the better teams will have the personnel to force those match-ups.
So while I am excited about the Packers’ draft and can’t wait to see how some of these young players perform, it remains to be seen if we have truly filled the gap that is expected to be vactated when Clay Matthews moves back outside. The loss of BJ Raji certainly didn’t help that so we will all be hoping the first-rounder Clark will play more like top 100 player Mike Daniels than a Datone Jones.
Either way, it looks to be another exciting and challenging season and Dom Capers has to be excited about the possibilities in 2016.