Packers need Clay Matthews -- plus help -- inside and outside

In his full-time return to outside linebacker after spending a season and a half at inside linebacker, Clay Matthews recorded a career-low 5.0 sacks in 12 regular-season games. Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- With free agency less than a month away, it’s a good time to take a look at whom the Green Bay Packers have returning and what they might need to add this offseason at each position.


Under contract for 2017: Clay Matthews, Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan, Kyler Fackrell, Reggie Gilbert, Derrick Mathews.

Free agents: Datone Jones, Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Jayrone Elliott (restricted), Jordan Tripp (restricted), Joe Thomas (exclusive rights).

Position review: It was another injury-filled season for Matthews, who battled through a separated left shoulder the last two months of the season without missing any games. Earlier in the year, Matthews missed four games because of ankle and hamstring injuries. In his full-time return to outside linebacker after spending a season and a half at inside linebacker, Matthews recorded a career-low 5.0 sacks in 12 regular-season games.

Perry, who played on a one-year, $5 million contract, posted a career-high 11 sacks (plus another in the postseason). He missed two games because of a broken hand and finished the season playing with a large cast on his broken left hand.

With the emergence of Perry, Peppers became a part-time player, and although he was clearly in decline, he still managed 8.5 sacks in 19 games, including playoffs.

Jones never quite found any consistency, which was the same as when he played defensive end before moving to outside linebacker this past season.

Thomas, Ryan and Martinez -- in that order -- handled the bulk of the snaps at inside linebacker, but each has his limitations: Thomas an inability to shed blocks, Ryan a lack of big plays and Martinez in coverage.

Position outlook: The Packers have to decide once and for all what to do with Matthews. It’s clear he’d rather play outside linebacker, but he might be better served to play inside. He was at his healthiest during the season and a half, in 2014 and 2015, when he played on the interior. Dom Capers’ defense might be better served with Matthews inside as well, considering what the unit has there now in Thomas, Ryan and Martinez.

“This outside linebacker/inside linebacker deal, I don’t know why we have to keep trying to put him in a place,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after the season. “He moves around. If you watch the games, he doesn’t always line up in one spot. I think that’s very important for us to continue to do that. Frankly, if he doesn’t have the injuries, you would have seen a lot more of it this year.

“He’s a playmaker. He brings a unique set of skills to our defense. Maybe we can come up with a new position for him so we don’t have to [label him] because he plays both. He plays the rover position, he plays inside, he plays outside. I’ve spoken on this time and time again. ... We need to move him around.”

Much has been made about Matthews’ salary -- he’ll make $11.1 million and have a cap charge of $15.075 million this coming year -- but the Packers shouldn’t ask him to take a pay cut; it’s not like they need the cap space.

Wherever they decide to play Matthews, they’re going to need more pass-rushers off the edge even if they re-sign Perry, who will likely command in the range of $7 million to $9 million per year. Perry seems to be over his early-career injury problems, but that will seemingly always be the biggest question about him.

At age 37, Peppers appears to be done in Green Bay, and Jones never materialized into a big-time playmaker.

Fackrell didn’t show enough during his rookie season to convince the Packers they don’t need to address this spot high in the draft or in free agency.

Level of need (low, medium or high): High

By the numbers

18.5: Sacks for Perry and Peppers, combined, in the regular season last year. They ranked first and second on the team.

2014: The last season in which Matthews posted double-digit sacks, with 11.0.