GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When general manager Ted Thompson picked Nick Perry in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, he envisioned a pass-rush pairing with Clay Matthews that would handle the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker position for years.
Five years later, it might finally come to fruition.
Perry was hurt for a good portion of his first two seasons, which at least in part prompted Thompson to sign Julius Peppers in 2014. Matthews then moved to inside linebacker late in 2014 and stayed there through the 2015 season.
Then last year, when Perry enjoyed his finest season with 11 sacks, Matthews battled ankle, hamstring and shoulder injuries that limited his snaps and effectiveness.
With Perry back after signing a five-year, $60 million contract in March and Matthews finally over the shoulder injury that slowed him late in the season combined with the departures of Peppers (to the Carolina Panthers) and Datone Jones (to the Minnesota Vikings) in free agency, the bulk of the pass-rush responsibility might finally fall to the two first-round picks originally thought to be the cornerstones of the Packers’ pass rush.
“I think so,” Matthews said this week at the start of the Packers’ offseason workouts. “In fact, I just had this conversation with Nick when we got into town. We’ve had years where Nick’s had an exceptional year, like last year, and I was bitten by the injury bug. And I’ve had years when I’ve gotten after the quarterback and he hasn’t been able to finish the season. If you’re able to put us together, I think the possibilities are very great.
“It’s obviously a volatile position, but at the same time, he’s feeling good about where he’s at right now and I’m feeling good about where I’m at. Hopefully we can be what Ted and everybody envisioned us when he drafted me in ’09 and ’12 when Nick came in the league. Hopefully that’s the case.”
Before last season, Perry had never recorded more than four sacks in a season. While Perry had his best year in terms of sacks, Matthews had his worst, registering only five. Given how much their defense struggled last season, ranking 31st in passing yards allowed, the Packers likely will need big production from both Matthews and Perry.
“As a rusher, I think that’s one of the best positions that’s needed to win a championship,” Perry said shortly after he re-signed with the Packers. “I think I have a lot of great things to look forward to doing this year and moving forward.”
There’s still some uncertainty about how much Matthews will have to play inside linebacker, but with the loss of Peppers and Jones combined with the relative inexperience of Jayrone Elliott, who was re-signed to a one-year, $1.6 million deal this offseason, and second-year pro Kyler Fackrell, Matthews might be needed more on the outside, depending on what happens in the draft.
“With Nick and myself being on the outside and losing two great players in Julius and Datone, it increases their opportunity to go in there and make plays,” Matthews said. “Jayrone has shown flashes throughout his career; we just ask that he does it on a consistent basis. When he got his opportunities last year, he did. We’ll ask him to keep improving on that. Same with Kyler -- being from a small school, a mid-round guy, coming in here and making a few splash plays. He’ll have what I expect to be more opportunities. With everybody, we just ask that they continue to improve their game, no matter what year they’re in the league.”