GREEN BAY - As he sat in his hotel room at the Indianapolis Downtown Marriott, Mike McCarthy knew he'd already said too much.
The Green Bay Packers coach was holding court with a couple of reporters one February afternoon, discussing his vision for the team's defense and how it might improve after several disappointing seasons. Earlier in the day, speaking at the annual NFL Scouting Combine, he'd mentioned a position he called the "Elephant," and now inquiring minds wanted to know more.
So, McCarthy delivered a history lesson – but little else.
He explained what the elephant position historically had been – the Bill Walsh-era San Francisco 49ers are credited with inventing the term, to describe future Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Haley – and revealed he'd actually come up with the idea last year for defensive end/outside linebacker Mike Neal, who ended up having to play almost exclusively at linebacker because of injuries. McCarthy also clarified that the position won't be the same with his team in 2014 as it was for the 1980s Niners.
"I just used the ‘elephant' term," McCarthy said. "We developed a position called ‘elephant' [in 2013] and we really never [got to use it]. We trained it in training camp, but just the way the injuries went, Mike played pretty much outside linebacker most of the year. That wasn't the plan or the vision of his job description."
Now, having added Julius Peppers – whom the coaches view as perfect for their "elephant" concept – the Packers are excited about installing it and utilizing it. Talking about it in-depth? Not as much.
"An elephant for us could maybe be in certain schemes an outside ‘backer. He could be a defensive end in other schemes. You'll see an elephant align in a lot of different spots," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "When you have a number of different schemes, you could see a number of different elephants on the field in different spots based off what those schemes are.
"I just think in this day and age, with the injury factor and that type of thing, you've got to have a lot of flexibility because what you play one week you might not be able to play the next week because you have a couple of guys banged up. You've got to be ready to go and be ready to go out and play at a high level each week."
One of those guys who got banged up last season is star outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who missed five regular-season games and the season-ending playoff loss to San Francisco with a broken thumb, which he fractured on Oct. 6 against Detroit and again on Dec. 22 against Pittsburgh. While Matthews isn't apparently an elephant, he will also be used in a variety of ways, giving Capers even more flexibility.
Peppers, meanwhile, will line up at both defensive end and outside linebacker, although he's unlikely to play as many snaps as he did last year in Chicago (855) in hopes of getting more production from him than last year (7.5 sacks).
"I felt fine last year. Circumstances around me and the team, you know, led to certain things," Peppers said. "But as far as me and how my body feels, I feel great."
Peppers spent most of his time in open practices during the offseason working as an outside linebacker, but linebackers coach Winston Moss, who is now coaching both inside and outside linebackers following Kevin Greene's offseason departure, said Peppers will still work as a defensive end at times.
"I think he has that opportunity to still play with his hand on the ground," Moss said. "Julius has been great. He's really come in and he's shown a lot of poise in what he's doing. He doesn't say a lot. The guy comes to work, he works hard, he gets in line. You would never know that this is one of the premier players in the league. He just goes about his business as far as keeping his head down, working hard and whatever we've asked him to do, so far, he's had a great attitude in trying to get it done."
Inside, longtime starters A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones are still atop the depth chart, even though Jones followed up a terrific 2012 season with a subpar 2013.
"Brad's our starter, until I'm told otherwise," Moss said. "Brad has fought through injuries as of late but, when Brad was healthy and Brad was dialed in, Brad was playing his ass off, as well. We've got some guys who are very capable of being good vs. the run, can cover vs. the pass and can blitz the quarterback."
But fourth-year man Jamari Lattimore got extended work in practice during organized team activities and minicamp, and he impressed in the four games he started in place of Jones (hamstring) last year. He'd also fit McCarthy's stated plan of using more personnel groupings and getting more players involved.
"He wants to be a playmaker. He wants to be an impact player," Moss said. "So far, it's been primarily on special teams, and we can only see if that's going to be the same or see what's going to happen as far as playing on defense. But there could be an opportunity there. If it does show up, you've got to be ready to take it and seize the moment."
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Is the tandem of Matthews and Peppers a recipe for greatness?
Neither Peppers nor Matthews has had what the other gives him now: A running mate who will command attention from opposing offenses and make offensive coordinators hem and haw about which of them to double-team. While Peppers is the oldest player on the Packers' roster at 34, two NFL GMs said this offseason that of the three big-name aging pass rushers who hit the open market – Peppers, ex-Cowboy DeMarcus Ware and ex-Viking Jared Allen – they thought Peppers had the most left. Now, it'll be interesting to see what kind of beautiful music he and Matthews can play together.
"I haven't really played with a guy like Clay, really my whole career," Peppers said. "A really dominant player on the outside, I really haven't had that ever. I'm excited to get out there with him and see what we can do."
On the rise
After spending most of his first two seasons as a core special-teams player, Lattimore played a career-high 272 defensive snaps on defense last season, starting four games for an injured Brad Jones and recording 38 tackles (31 solo), two sacks and a forced fumble. Now, his role could expand even further, especially in sub packages.
"I haven't accomplished, to me, really nothing," Lattimore said during organized team activity practices this spring, having returned on a one-year, $1.431 million restricted free-agent deal. "[My goals are] to make a lot of plays to help the team. There's a lot of different levels [of success]. For me, I have to accomplish a lot more before I take that. I've got a lot to do."
Player to watch
Every time it seems as though Perry is starting to come around as an outside linebacker, he gets hurt. It happened his rookie year when he had to have season-ending wrist surgery to repair an injury he'd actually suffered in the regular-season opener, and it happened again last year, when he had a big game at Baltimore and suffered a foot injury that plagued him the rest of the season. Now, all eyes are on him in Year 3, in part because he missed all the offseason – a time he really could have used to progress as a player.
"I don't think it helps any player to miss a whole offseason," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after the team's first minicamp practice in June when asked about Perry. "For a player to miss all of it, obviously it's not a good situation to be in. I think any of the players who did not take advantage of this nine-week opportunity, or [sat out] due to injury is definitely something they're going to have to work harder to catch up once training camp starts."
Undrafted free agents.
History says an undrafted free-agent linebacker will make the roster, considering one has done so every year since 2010. From Frank Zombo (2010) to Vic So'oto (2011) to Dezman Moses (2012) to Mulumba (2013), there always seems to be room for at least one of them again this year. The top candidates? Hubbard comes from quality Alabama stock, but inside linebackers Doughty and Thomas are worth keeping an eye on, too.
With eight tackles against Chicago in Week 17, Hawk moved into the No. 1 spot in franchise history for career tackles. (Coaches began keeping tackle statistics in 1975). He led the team with 153 tackles (112 solo) last season, giving him 1,025 tackles (734 solo) for his career: He took over the No. 1 spot from longtime fan favorite John Anderson and now has had 100-plus tackle seasons in seven of his eight years in the NFL.
"Obviously you hate to lose a coach that has as much acumen, as KG had. But Winston obviously brings something new to the table. Anytime you get a different coach, you take away the positives from him, so in meeting with him and being able to converse with him and now him being my position coach has helped me out pick up little nuances that I may not have seen." – Matthews, on the offseason departure of outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene.
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Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.