Will Matthews take his game to even greater heights?
With his five-year, $66 million contract, Matthews is being paid like a superstar. And it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t been one already, with four straight Pro Bowl selections, 50 career sacks (including 7.5 in eight playoff games) and more forced fumbles (10, including playoffs) than anyone on a defensive unit starving for them. Where does he go from here? If Matthews can stay healthy – while he missed four games last season, he had only missed two in his career to that point – coach Mike McCarthy likes to say the Packers are a different defense with him on the field. Now, he must become one of those transcendent superstars who carries a team.
On the rise
The Packers dumped not one but two players who were solid starters for them in Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith – Bishop having been more than just solid – because they believed in Jones, whom they signed to a three-year, $11.75 million deal to bring back as the starter alongside Hawk. Certainly Bishop and Smith had injury concerns that contributed to their being jettisoned, but the Packers likely would have been more willing to take a chance on one or both recovering had they not had such faith in Jones. Now, he must not only show that he was worth paying – and keeping over the other two players – but that he’s capable of being a difference-maker.
Player to watch
Perry seemed to be turning a corner as he started to figure out how to play the outside linebacker position after playing defensive end in college, and then his season ended with a wrist injury that he initially played through before needing surgery. The Packers need him to deliver at a higher level than what they got from the position last year from Erik Walden. Perry showed up at the offseason program looking slimmer and saying he’d dropped “a couple pounds.” It’s easy to forget that he was the team’s first-round pick a year ago, given the Packers’ next-man-up mantra. The question now is how much the injury stunted his growth at the position.
Top backup jobs.
Dezman Moses, who played more than 600 snaps last season, enters camp as the No. 3 outside linebacker, a position that clearly is vital to the 3-4 scheme. And by dumping Bishop and Smith – not even keeping them on in backup roles – the Packers are counting on Manning, Lattimore and Francois as their top backups inside. Of those, only Francois has started a game, but Manning is an intriguing prospect after his rookie season was derailed by a training-camp illness that set him back. And by letting the oft-injured Frank Zombo walk as a restricted free agent who wasn’t tendered, the Packers look perilously thin there, although Lattimore could be a swing backup as both an inside and outside player.
Even though he missed four games and only played 752 regular-season snaps and still finished fifth in the league in sacks with 13, and Matthews also has the fifth-most sacks (42.5) in the NFL since he entered the league as a first-round pick in 2009. The players ahead of him? Minnesota’s Jared Allen (59.5), Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware (57.5), Kansas City’s Tamba Hali (44.0) and Miami’s Cameron Wake (43.0).
“He’s just an unbelievable teacher, man. He’s very passionate about the game. He stresses things and understands exactly what guys need to push them. Overall, he’s just a great teacher and great motivator. His passion for the game allows guys to learn from him quickly. It’s just a pleasure to be able to learn from him. I don’t know too many other coaches who played 15 years at the position, so if he says it, it’s pretty much valid.” – Moses, on outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene.
Next: Defensive backs.
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.