The offseason position previews continue with the linebackers. Here’s a look at where the roster stands as of today:
Clay Matthews (32, 11th NFL season)
Reggie Gilbert (25, second NFL season)
Blake Martinez (25, fourth NFL season)
Nick Perry (28, eighth NFL season)
Jake Ryan (26, fifth NFL season)
Kyler Fackrell (27, fourth NFL season)
Oren Burks (23, second NFL season)
James Crawford (24, second NFL season)
Kendall Donnerson (22, second NFL season)
Antonio Morrison (24, fourth NFL season)
At first glance, what stands out about this group is its overall youth. Aside from Matthews and Perry, who could both very well be wearing different colors in 2019, the Packers are young at linebacker—and being young is generally a very good thing. In this case, though, the problem for Green Bay is the lack of proven production they would be bringing back if they choose to move on from the two most seasoned veterans in the bunch.
Despite dwindling numbers over the past three or four seasons, Matthews has not disappeared to the level his most vocal detractors would have you believe. He can still find the ball after a decade in the league, and his impact is seen more in how his presence frees up others rather than on his own stat line. Having said that, his effort level appears lacking a little too often for me to consider him an essential piece to the defense anymore. Still, he is the franchise’s all-time sacks leader, and the Packers seem to value him enough to consider bringing him back at the right price.
Perry, though his numbers and availability issues would make it easier to part with him, is a more difficult case due to his contract status. Unlike Matthews, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, Perry still has three years left on his current deal. The 28-year old will be three years removed from his last double-digit sack season—he had 11.5 in 2016—when 2019 kicks off, and has yet to play a full 16-game season in his seven-year career. Parting ways with Perry would cost the Packers $11.1 million in dead cap, while saving them just over $3.3 million. But unless they truly believe he can finish out his contract in Green Bay, it would make sense financially to cut ties now rather than paying his salary the next one or two seasons AND taking a dead cap hit if they release him in the future.
Jake Ryan, who missed 2018 with a torn ACL, is also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agency, but will likely benefit from the numbers he put up over the first three years of his career in Green Bay. Before going down in training camp prior to last season, the combination of Ryan and Blake Martinez was discussed as a strength on the defensive side of the ball, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team bring Ryan back on a mutually beneficial deal to see if he can help shore up the inside linebacker spot.
Outside of Martinez, who has been a man-child the last two seasons, with 286 tackles between 2017 and 2018, the rest of the linebacking corps largely all fall into the same category—unknown. Even Kyler Fackrell, who led the team in sacks (10.5) in 2018, needs to prove he can be counted on consistently. Given the youth and lack of production among the rest of the group, the Packers seem poised to target a veteran pass rusher when free agency opens and, with the 12th pick of the draft, should strongly consider taking a top-rated pass rusher there as well.