With all the change over the course of the season from things like injuries, Brett Hundley‘s up-and-down play, and the Martellus Bennett fiasco, one thing stayed rather constant: the lack of pass-rush generated by the outside linebackers. At the beginning of 2017, one would think that the unit wouldn’t be the major issue that it was; Nick Perry was retained on a 5-year deal, Clay Matthews had a full offseason to recover from various injuries, and Green Bay just drafted a familiar face in Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel with the first pick of the fourth round. Add in free agent acquisition Ahmad Brooks and a potential third year jump from Kyler Fackrell and the Packers had an unspectacular but presumably solid corp of pass-rushers. The unit as a whole only registered 21 sacks all season, a very low number considering Perry and Matthews each make north of $10 million per year on their respective contracts.

Clay Matthews:

2017 Stats: 14 games, 44 total tackles, 8.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble

Contract Situation: Signed through 2018 season

Although the sack numbers weren’t quite as high as they were during his prime, Matthews had a bit of career resurgence this past season. Matthews made plays for the defense, both filling up running lanes and pressuring the quarterback. The 31-year old also looked more athletic on defense and appears to have a few more years left of solid football. Matthews also only missed two games due to injury this past season, compared to 2016 when he missed four. 52 will undoubtedly be a centerpiece in new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense, and may see more time at inside linebacker in 2018, where he would be able to drop into coverage or be a dynamic pass rushing threat who may catch opposing quarterbacks off guard.

Nick Perry:

2017 Stats: 12 games played, 38 total tackles, 7 sacks, 1 forced fumble

Contract Situation: Signed through 2021 season

Fresh off an impressive 11-sack campaign in only 14 games, Green Bay rewarded their 2012 first round pick with a 5 year $59-million contract just before free agency this past summer. Despite an impressive season as both a pass-rusher and run-stopper in 2016, many believed the contract to be a little too rich for the Packers blood, and after a bit of a regression in 2016 it’s hard not to agree. While Perry played in 2 less games, his sacks dropped from 11 to 7, and 3 of those sacks came in Week 10 against the Chicago Bears’ backup tackle. Perhaps the defensive coordinator change will inject more life into Perry’s game and we see signs of his 2016 self during the upcoming season. Don’t be surprised to see Perry play some defensive end this season if Pettine decides to run some 4-man fronts, as that was Perry’s position in college and it suits his game well as he is fantastic in run support off the edge.

Ahmad Brooks:

2017 Stats: 12 games played, 19 total tackles, 1.5 sacks

Contract Situation: Currently an unrestricted free agent

Brooks’ season, much like the Packers’ season as a whole, was defined by injury. While he only missed four games due to a back injury, it affected his play through most of the season and he never really flashed the pass-rushing skill that helped him generate 51.5 sacks over eight seasons with the 49ers. When Brooks did see the field, he may not made much of an impact rushing the passer, but he was well above average in run support. Currently a free agent, the Packers may try to bring him back on a cheap deal for the veteran experience he provides, although I do expect the Packers to try and get younger and more athletic at the position through the upcoming NFL draft.

Kyler Fackrell:

2017 Stats: 16 games played, 28 total tackles, 3 sacks

Contract Situation: Signed through 2019 season

At this point in Fackrell’s career, it appears as though his ceiling is as a rotational pass-rusher with limited athletic ability. Taken in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft, many believed that Fackrell was a bit of a reach as a 25-year old rookie who would take time to develop into an NFL caliber linebacker. In 2017, Fackrell flashed some ability down the stretch, but overall he was routinely tossed around by tackles just as he was during his rookie campaign. At 245 pounds, he’s a bit on the smaller side for an edge rusher and does not offer much in run support as well. As the roster stands right now, Fackrell is probably the first or second pass rusher off the bench, but I expect Green Bay to reinforce the outside linebackers in this years draft. Because of this, Fackrell will most likely have to take a large jump heading into his third season in order to secure a roster spot.

Vince Biegel:

2017 Stats: 9 games played, 16 total tackles

Contract Situation: Signed through 2020 season

Taken with the first pick in the fourth round, Biegel was expected to be a large contributor during his rookie season after Green Bay passed on his former teammate at Wisconsin, TJ Watt, in the first round. Unfortunately, this never came to fruition as Biegel suffered a foot injury during rookie minicamp early in summer. This essentially wiped Biegel of a rookie season, as he missed all of training camp and had to learn the scheme on the fly during his nine games as a rookie in green and gold. While Biegel did not make any plays in his limited opportunities as a rookie, a full, healthy offseason and training camp will work wonders as he prepares for his sophomore campaign in 2018.

Chris Odom:

2017 Stats: 7 games played, 6 total tackles

Contract Situation: Signed through 2019 season

Odom, an undrafted rookie who spent all of training camp with the Atlanta Falcons, was signed by the Packers immediately after the inital 53-man cutdown prior to Week 1. Despite being healthy for the majority of the season, Odom was only a gameday active seven times and never made an impact while on the field at a position starved of playmakers. The 23-year old was even surpassed by fellow undrafted rookie Reggie Gilbert in the final weeks of the season. Although Odom is only one year into a three-year deal, he’s definitely on the roster bubble heading into 2018 barring an unprecedented second year jump.

Reggie Gilbert:

2017 Stats: 2 games played, 1 tackle, 1 sack

Contract Situation: Signed through 2018 season

Promoted to the active roster from the practice squad following Green Bay’s postseason elimination in Week 15, Gilbert is a great example of a guy who made an impact despite limited opportunities. While the second-year pro only registered one sack, he consistently made his way to the quarterback and had a number of pressures. After seeing Gilbert tear it up against opposing offensive lines in the regular season, one has to wonder how Gilbert was held back on the practice squad all season while guys like Odom and even Fackrell were given opportunities all season. A personal favorite of mine during this past preseason, I was a bit shocked to see Gilbert fall short of the 53-man roster, but I highly doubt that will happen in 2018. Although Gilbert flashed real pass-rushing potential in the final weeks of 2017, he will undoubtedly need to battle against Biegel, Fackrell, and any future acquisitions at the position to see more playing time this upcoming season.

Level of Need: High

A week ago at this time, I would’ve considered the Packers to have an “extremely high” need at outside linebacker, but the recent signing of defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson to a $5-million deal should be a boon to the pass rush when paired with Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark. That defensive line will undoubtedly open up more lanes for Matthews and Co. to get to the quarterback and will make an average group look above average. However, I still expect the Packers to add an outside linebacker within the first two rounds of the draft because the Packers are rather thin at the position. Matthews isn’t getting any younger, Perry is a bit overpaid and a real candidate to be a cap casualty in a year or two, and the rest of the position is too young and inexperienced to be trusted when injury inevitably strikes Matthews and/or Perry. There is not much left on the free agent market in terms of edge rushers, but names like Harold Landry and Marcus Davenport have consistently been linked to the Packers in the first round of multiple mock drafts and would immediately add a Day 1 starter to this underachieving group.

All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.

All contract information courtesy of Spotrac.com.