GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The last time the Green Bay Packers changed defensive coordinators, they handed Dom Capers two of the best pieces he could have wanted when then-general manager Ted Thompson drafted a pair of cornerstone-type players.
One of them, Clay Matthews, could be that again for new defensive boss Mike Pettine, who last month replaced the fired Capers.
Not only should new general manager Brian Gutekunst keep one of Thompson’s best draft picks, but Pettine should build his system around Matthews. At age 31 (he’ll be 32 on May 14), Matthews may have to reinvent himself as a more versatile player than just an edge rusher, but Pettine sounded open the idea of using him in a variety of roles.
“The first thing that jumps out is his versatility,” Pettine said at his introductory news conference when asked about Matthews. “This is a guy that can play on the edge, he can rush inside. He’s had a good season playing inside linebacker [in 2014-15], and I’ve always believed in having those versatile, hybrid-type players.”
Much of Pettine’s plans remain guarded inside the Lambeau Field offices, but his first public discussion of Matthews’ role offered at least a hint of what’s in the works. Pettine pointed to two reasons for moving Matthews around rather than keeping him mostly at outside linebacker, where he has played most of his career.
“One, a guy that can play multiple positions can give you depth so that if you have an injury … you can put a guy in, move him around,” Pettine said. “So when you have versatile guys, that adds depth. And the other thing is from an identification standpoint on the other side of the ball that they don’t clearly see, he’s always this position, that guy’s always the strong safety, that guy’s always the free. When you can move guys around and trade jobs, not just within game but week to week, because a big part of offense is identifying who the rushers are and what positions they’re playing. When you have guys like that, the creative part, you can do a lot more with those players.”
Still, Pettine insisted Matthews’ best days as a pass rusher were not behind him even though the 2009 first-round pick (No. 26 overall) has not reached double-digit sacks in any of the last three seasons. Matthews led the Packers with 7.5 sacks last season, while playing in 14 of 16 games, to run his franchise-record sack total to 80.
“He can still line up on the edge and rush the passer,” Pettine said.
However, it might serve Pettine and the defense better to pair Matthews with Blake Martinez – the NFL’s co-leader in tackles last season – at inside linebacker, especially on early downs in the base or even early-down nickel packages. Matthews could then jump outside on third down.
Matthews was on a short list of players Gutekunst might consider releasing or offering a restructured contract. Matthews has one more season on his five-year, $66 million contract and would command $11.4 million in salary and bonuses this coming season. That’s pricey for a pass-rusher whose last impact season in that role was in 2014, when he posted 11 sacks.
Nevertheless, if Pettine and coach Mike McCarthy see Matthews as more than just an edge rusher, then perhaps Gutekunst will keep him on board at that price.
"I think he can play just about everywhere,” said Packers defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery, who will work closely with Pettine and linebackers coach Winston Moss on the pass rush. “You can stand him on the edge, you can put him inside like we've done, you can put him off the ball. I think he's still a dynamic rusher. I think coach is going to do a good job of utilizing him and putting him in positions to be successful."
Thompson went into the 2009 draft with the No. 9 overall pick – which he used on defensive tackle B.J. Raji – and then traded back into the first round to select Matthews. This year, Gutekunst inherited the 14th pick – the highest the Packers have picked since the Raji selection – so there’s a chance to grab another impact defensive player. It doesn’t necessarily have to be on the line, since he has Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels in their prime years.
There is, however, the same kind of work needed on the roster for Pettine that Thompson did for Capers nine years ago.
“The cupboard certainly isn’t bare; there are some quality football players here,” Pettine said. “But that’s something as we get going, the free-agency process and the draft process we build a depth chart and we can assess not only what our needs are but the priority for filling those needs and hopefully from the personnel department through the coaching staff that we’re on the same page with that.”