How ironic. The inaugural post for this Packers fan blog is to clamor for the team to sign a free agent. Before you snicker while making a Ted Thompson joke and close your browser, hear me out. While ILB isn’t the only position group on GB’s roster that could use an upgrade, it is clearly the one that had the most damaging domino effect in 2015 with its ineffectiveness. Of course, you probably know I’m referring to Clay Matthews being forced to move to ILB.
While Clay did an admirable job filling in at ILB for the past one and a half seasons, Ted is doing this team a huge disservice by forcing Dom Capers to deploy our best defensive player (and pass-rusher) out of position on primary downs. While Dom has still managed to find ways for Clay to rush QBs via A-gap pressures and stunts with Julius Peppers, he has still played an inordinate amount of snaps banging bodies inside and in coverage. Mike McCarthy made his stance on this quite clear in his season ending presser when he identified Clay returning to OLB as a primary goal for next season. Clearly, this team plans on adding a player or two to the roster to compete with Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington (and no, Nate Palmer is not going to cut it). The only real question now is, by what means?
In a perfect world, Green Bay would answer their ILB issue cheaply via the draft. The risk with waiting until the draft however is that GB has no way to know how the early rounds will unfold. Even if they target an ILB early (say, Reggie Ragland from Alabama or Myles Jack from UCLA), there is no way to be sure that player will be available at #27 when GB is on the clock. All current mock drafts actually have those two players long gone by then. And even if an ideal ILB is on the board for GB, this wouldn’t preclude Ted from addressing a different position if a player ranked higher on his board is also available. This strategy led Ted to draft two defensive backs and a WR last season before ultimately selecting ILB Jake Ryan in the 4th round. Ryan emerged as a steady option alongside Clay but clearly has his limitations, particularly in coverage. He cannot be expected to fill Clay’s shoes as the primary ILB. Alternatively, this team could also add an ILB via Undrafted Free Agency, however I doubt a player of that calibur competing with Barrington and Ryan would instill much confidence in Mike allowing Clay to return to OLB full-time. We also have absolutely no idea what to expect from Barrington next season, as he will only be penciled in as a starter.
Free Agency is the best and perhaps only option for GB to improve the ILB position with enough confidence to allow Clay and his 13.8M cap hit to return, and most importantly remain, at OLB in 2016. At this early stage, it is unclear which scheduled UFA’s will actually reach the market, and for those that do, how expensive their market will be. Perhaps the biggest name is Derrick Johnson, who surprisingly rebounded from an Achilles injury to deliver an outstanding season for KC. KC has several other defensive free agents they will likely prioritize, such as Eric Berry and Tamba Hali, which may allow Johnson to slip through the cracks. His age (33) may preclude Ted from having any interest, however his age could also result in his price dipping to a range GB deems affordable. And to my earlier point, any dollar spent in free agency on an ILB has the added inherit benefit of allowing our best (and most expensive) defensive player to return to his true OLB position. Other viable options include Indy’s Jerrell Freeman (graded as one of PFF’s Top run-stopping 3-4 ILB’s in 2015) and Denver’s Danny Trevathan. All three ILB’s mentioned here have previously excelled in 3-4 schemes.
As we all know, expecting Ted Thompson to address a team need via free agency is foolhardy. However, now that Clay returning to OLB permanently is (and should be) a priority, it is imperative that this team finds a reliable and instant contributor at ILB to allow Barrington and Ryan to compete for one remaining spot.
*Salary Cap figures per Overthecap.com