Back in June, when discussing the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker depth, head coach Mike McCarthy stated that “this is probably as good of depth as we’ve had there in some time”. At the time, it seemed like a very curious statement, especially when figuring in that the Packers had let veteran pass rushers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones (who it appears will be looking for a new place to play) depart as free agents this off-season. But when starting outside linebackers Nick Perry (ankle) and Clay Matthews (groin) both left the third preseason game against the Denver Broncos with injuries that so called “good depth” that McCarthy bragged about seemed a lot less solid. With the outside linebacker position being so vital in the Packers 3-4 defensive alignment, Packers general manager Ted Thompson was forced to do something he rarely does, look for help on the free agent market. In need of not just depth, but somebody who can contribute, Thompson and the Packers signed former San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks to a free agent contract. The late addition of Ahmad Brooks illustrates the lack of depth at outside linebacker the Packers had going into this training camp.
Late Addition of Ahmad Brooks Illustrates Lack of Depth at Outside Linebacker
Lack of Development in Training Camp
It appears that Thompson and the rest of the Packers front office believed they could replace the production Peppers provided last season with the players they already had on their roster. But it appears that they grossly overestimated what those players could do.
Although Jayrone Elliott had flashed some potential at times as a pass rusher in prior seasons, most of his production came on special teams. But just like with Perry and Matthews, Elliott (back) left the Broncos game with an injury. The Packers might have overestimated with Elliott, but it seems like they might have overestimated even more on second year player Kyler Fackrell.
In Thompson’s draft and develop mantra, he believes that a player should make a big jump in their second season as a professional. It appears that the Packers expected just that in Fackrell, who is a former third round pick of Thompson’s. The Packers had a lot of expectations when they drafted the 6’5” Fackrell in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft.
Not only did Fackrell possess intriguing size for the outside linebacker position, but he played the outside linebacker position in Utah State’s 3-4 defense. Although lacking the weight to play the position at the NFL level when he entered the league, he still registered two sacks in his rookie campaign, was a part of the Packers special teams and was a part of the Packers outside linebacker rotation at times during last season. The Packers believed that a full off-season in the weight room would help the slender Fackrell gain the needed weight to take on NFL offensive linemen.
But even with the full NFL off-season under his belt, Fackrell still struggled in this season’s training camp. Sure, he finally won his first one on one blocking drill, but it took him a year and 12 practices to do so, and it came against an undrafted free agent offensive lineman.
With the Packers decimated by injuries at outside linebacker, Fackrell was given the opportunity to start in the Packers final preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams. Once again, Fackrell didn’t seize the opportunity and was pretty much an afterthought in the Packers pass rush. It can be argued that undrafted free agent Reggie Gilbert, who was cut on Saturday during the Packers final cut down, outplayed Fackrell throughout training camp. With it appearing that Fackrell isn’t ready for a prominent spot in the Packers outside linebacker rotation, the addition of Brooks becomes even more important.
Front Office Unwilling to Move
The Packers front office should be commended for recognizing they needed help at outside linebacker, but that is where the compliments for them should stop. Even with the loss of Peppers and even Jones, Thompson refused to bring in help in free agency and waited until the fourth round of this year’s draft to address the position.
Thompson grabbed Wisconsin outside linebacker Vince Biegel in the fourth round, but it appears that Biegel will have a hard time contributing this season after missing all of training camp because of foot surgery. Not only did Thompson not sign an outside linebacker free agent, he waited until the fourth round to select an outside linebacker that missed all of training camp.
Further, he also passed on former Wisconsin standout outside linebacker T.J. Watt. With Watt still available when the Packers were on the board in the first round, Thompson chose to trade out of the first round and the Pittsburgh Steelers ended up grabbing Watt. Don’t think Packers fans haven’t noticed that Watt had a great rookie training camp.
There is no doubt that Brooks will be asked to contribute right away. Behind Perry and Matthews, Brooks is the most accomplished pass rusher at the outside linebacker position. Brooks has 53.5 career sacks and not only can he rush the passer, but he has shown that he is capable of covering the opposing team’s tight end. But being 33 years of age, it might be a lot to ask Brooks to play long periods of time, something that might happen with Perry and Matthews being so injury prone.
It seems that Thompson overestimated his talent at outside linebacker. Packers fans are hoping that Perry and Matthews can stay healthy and that the aging Brooks still has something left in the tank. If not, a Packers defense that can’t afford key personnel losses might be scrambling to find answers.