On the latest episode of the podcast, someone asked if inside linebacker was the greatest need heading into the 2016 season. I answered, “without a doubt.” You could have replaced “2016 season” with any other season in the past 5+ years and my answer would have been the same. This has been a position of need for the Packers for a long, long, long time.
The good news is that all is not lost. The Packers have a couple decent pieces on the team already, with some really nice options in free agency and the draft. Let’s delve into the options and dream big. After all, it’s the offseason, where hope springs eternal. Or, at the very least, the tears don’t flow quite as freely.
Players Coming Back in 2016
I hesitate to even include The Claymaker here, as Mike McCarthy has made it perfectly clear that he wants to bump Matthews outside next season. Still, I imagine he’ll still make an occasional appearance inside, though not nearly as much as he had in 2015.
Matthews struggled at times in the middle – he has a tendency to be too aggressive and is often out of position in coverage – but he gave the Packers an intelligent, instinctive and athletic presence in the middle that they have not had in years. The move inside was an unselfish one, and it helped out the Packers a great deal. But his true place is outside, and I’m excited to see him back there. Still, it leaves a pretty big hole in the middle of the defense.
(Are people still calling him The Claymaker? I have such a hard time keeping up with the kids and their lingo these days.)
After a solid preseason, it was assumed Ryan would enter the season as the starter in the middle with Matthews. Over the first 11 weeks, he only played more than 50% of the defensive snaps once. Starting in week 12, he played in more than 60% of defensive snaps in every game.
I was glad he got more playing time, if only because Ryan had potential where Nate Palmer had none. Ryan showed flashes, but he wasn’t nearly consistent enough for my liking. He has decent instincts, but his range in coverage is limited at best. Seeing as how the pass defense in the middle of the field has been an issue for years, that’s a problem.
I’m looking forward to what he will provide in the middle in 2016. If he’s able to take a leap in his second season, it would certainly help the defense. I’m not overly optimistic that he’ll be able to take that leap.
I just said a lot of things about Jake Ryan, not all of them kind. Take all those things, downgrade them a tick, age them a couple years and you have Nate Palmer. He’s perfectly fine as a back-up, but that’s about it.
I love Barrington as a run defender. He hits the gap hard and is more than a capable tackler. But, as with all the others on this list, he is terrible in coverage. I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but facts are facts. He is still young (25), but he is a limited defender who just lost an entire season to injury.
He’s basically someone to dream on. I love his tools, but he hasn’t really shown anything to get truly excited about. Maybe he’ll get a shot this season to show what he can do.
To summarize: Clay Matthews is being bumped outside and none of the other guys on the roster are even decent at dropping into coverage. Same as it ever was.
None. For better or worse, everyone on this list is locked up through at least this season.
Potential Free Agent Acquisitions
Trevathan couldn’t have planned this any better. He’s 25 years old and a free agent coming off a Super Bowl win. His price tag will likely be too high for the Packers, but he would be a perfect fit. He’s a terrific run defender and tackler, but he really shines in coverage. Has tremendous closing speed and reads routes well. He’s fast but rarely plays out of control. He’s a smart, instinctive player and he would immediately upgrade this defense.
He played his college ball at the University of Kentucky, my alma mater. He and Randall Cobb’s careers spanned the same time frame, and I would love to see them on the same team again.
He’s getting along in years (I say that knowing full well that he is younger than I am), but he was still one of the best linebackers in the league last season. His services will be in high demand, but the Packers could get him for fewer years and less money than it would take to haul in Trevathan. He would make a perfect addition to this defense.
Johnson has been one of the best all-around linebackers in the league throughout his career. He can do everything exceedingly well and he is incredibly intelligent.
If the Packers were somehow able to sign Trevathan and Johnson, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.
Maybe the Packers won’t be able to sign Trevathan and/or Johnson. In fact, it seems unlikely. In that case, I’d love to see them go with Rey. He’s not on the same level as Trevathan and Johnson, but he could fit in really well in Green Bay. His game doesn’t jump off the screen, but he’s a solid tackler and slightly above average against the run and in coverage. That may not be the most exciting guy to go after, but “slightly above average” is something the Packers could really use in the middle of the field, especially when it comes to coverage.
I’ve had my eye on Rey for quite some time now. I’d love to have him on the Packers.
Freeman excels in pass coverage, pass rushing and defending the run. He is a complete player, and he can be easily overlooked since he has been playing for the Colts, who are not exactly known for their defensive prowess. Freeman likely won’t come cheap, but he’s worth a look.
Doesn’t think too much; more of a read-and-react type player. Loves to put his head down and get in on the action. Hard hitter. Fast, but erratic in coverage. Is rumored to be highly influential in the huddle.
Potential Draft Picks
While technically an outside linebacker, I’m putting Lee here because he could easily be moved inside. However, with his 40 yard dash time clocking in at 4.43, it’s unlikely he will drop to the Packers. Still, with his speed and instincts in the middle, he could start immediately and make a big impact.
He is a terrific in coverage and has great closing speed. He is also a talented run defender and pass rusher, which would make him and every down player.
He tore his ACL and LCL in the Fiesta Bowl, so there is a concern that he will miss the entire 2016 season. It’s tough to lose an entire year from a guy when the Packers are contending right now, but Smith may be worth it. If this injury causes him to drop in the draft, he could wind up being a steal for the Packers.
I said it at the top but it’s worth repeating: inside linebacker is the weakest position for the Packers heading into the 2016 season. But there are options. Spend a little
Thank you for reading. Dusty Evely is a featured writer for Titletown Sound Off. You can follow him on Twitter @DustyEvely. For even more Packers content, follow us on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.