After missing Julius Peppers in 2017, Mike McCarthy seeks pass-rush improvement

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Mike McCarthy's answer was immediate and emphatic.

After watching his oft-criticized defense struggle to generate a consistent pass rush last season, the Green Bay Packers' head coach confessed last week at the annual NFL meetings that his team definitely missed veteran pass-rusher Julius Peppers, who walked in free agency after the Packers' front office decided to move on from him following three productive seasons.

The Packers chose not to re-sign Peppers or 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones last year, and while Jones had little impact in his four seasons in Green Bay, Peppers became one of McCarthy's favorite players. Not only was he productive -- he registered 29.5 sacks in his three seasons in Green Bay, including playoffs -- but he was a steady veteran leader in a locker room that McCarthy admitted was not optimal last season after Aaron Rodgers' broken right collarbone led to a 7-9 finish.

Multiple league sources said last spring that Peppers wanted to return but never got an offer from the Packers. He wound up taking a one-year deal from his original NFL team, the Carolina Panthers, that paid him a $1.65 million signing bonus and $1 million base salary. Peppers, who turned 38 in January and was happy to be back in Carolina, had 11 sacks for the Panthers in 2017 and re-upped for another year with the Panthers last month.

Without Peppers, veteran outside linebackers Clay Matthews (7.5) and Nick Perry (seven) led the Packers in sacks last season. The remaining outside linebackers on the roster -- Kyler Fackrell (three), Ahmad Brooks (1.5), Reggie Gilbert (one), Vince Biegel (zero) and Chris Odom (zero) -- had a combined 5.5 sacks.

Desperate for edge-rushing help late in training camp, the Packers signed Brooks to a one-year, $3.5 million deal that guaranteed him $2.75 million at signing -- more than the Panthers paid Peppers.

"Oh, absolutely," McCarthy replied during the NFL coaches breakfast when asked if the Packers missed Peppers last season. "You look at Julius and Datone, that was 1,100 snaps of pass rush and we replaced it with Brooks and Odom. Just from an availability standpoint alone, that was a pretty significant void there.

Peppers wouldn't have singlehandedly fixed the Packers' defense, which finished in the second half of the 32-team league in almost every category last season, ranking 26th in scoring defense (24.0 per game), 22nd in yards allowed (348.9), 17th against the run (112.1), 23rd against the pass (236.8), 28th in third-down defense (allowing a 42.8 percent conversion rate) and 31st in red zone defense (allowing a 65.2 percent touchdown rate).

But he surely would have helped the pass rush, as Green Bay finished tied for 17th with 37 sacks -- the first time since 2011 that the Packers finished a season with fewer than 40 sacks.

Perhaps that's why McCarthy seems so happy with what new general manager Brian Gutekunst has done since taking over for Ted Thompson in January. While the outside linebacker group remains the same -- at least for now -- Gutekunst has been more active in free agency and added ex-New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, who had two double-digit sack seasons (10.5 in 2013 and 12 in 2015) and is looking to regain that form after two down seasons that led to his release.

"Absolutely. I love it," McCarthy said of Gutekunst's free-agency approach so far. "I think it's just like anything. If it's used correctly, it's a chance to have the most competitive 90-man roster. You're not putting a whole large amount of stress on your draft class every year. I think it, obviously, gives us a chance to improve.

"Free agency is fluid. Brian and the personnel guys are working back and forth. It's a whole different atmosphere in the personnel department now."

At the NFL scouting combine in February, Gutekunst indicated fixing the pass rush is a high priority for him, saying: "You have to have a dominant pass rush." But when asked if he thought the Packers were lacking edge rushers, he said he believes Matthews, Perry and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be difference-makers.

"I wouldn't say that we're lacking," Gutekunst said. "With Nick and Clay, hopefully they can stay healthy. They've always been productive edge-rushers for us. But pass rush comes from the entire defensive [front]. A lot of it is scheme-driven as well. With Mike Pettine coming in, we're all kind of excited to see how that changes."

Editor's note: Jason Wilde covers the Green Bay Packers for ESPN Wisconsin and is the co-host of Wilde & Tausch with former Packers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher.