NFL Nation: Nick Perry

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- With the bulk of the free-agent work done, it's a good time to recheck the Green Bay Packers' depth chart leading up to the May 8-10 NFL draft.

On Thursday, we broke down the way things look on offense.

Next up is the defense:

Defensive end: Datone Jones, Josh Boyd, Jerel Worthy.

[+] EnlargeDatone Jones
AP Photo/Morry GashThe Packers are counting on defensive end Datone Jones to rebound in his second season.
Analysis: The Packers have high hopes for Jones despite a disappointing rookie season in which the former first-round pick was slowed by an ankle injury and recorded just 3.5 sacks (two of which came in one game). "I feel he's one of those second-year players who [can] take a huge jump," coach Mike McCarthy said of Jones earlier this offseason. "That will be my expectations for him." Boyd, a fifth-round pick, actually saw more playing time late last season than Jones. Worthy played in only two games a year after he blew out his knee.

Defensive tackle: B.J. Raji, Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion.

Analysis: Moving Raji back to nose tackle on a full-time basis should help his production, which declined sharply over the last three years following a move to defensive end. Daniels was perhaps the team's most improved player last season, which should lead to an even bigger role this season. Guion, who was cut the Minnesota Vikings, will have to battle for a roster spot.

Elephant: Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Mike Neal.

Analysis: Elephant is a catch-all term for the multiple positions this trio will play. They will be part outside linebacker, part defensive end and part defensive tackle. The addition of Peppers, who was signed last month after being released by the Chicago Bears, should boost the pass rush. Expect Perry to play more on the right side this season, where he was far more impactful last season. These players will actually be tutored by linebackers coach Winston Moss.

Inside linebacker: A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore, Sam Barrington, Victor Aiyewa.

Analysis: Hawk had perhaps his best season last year, but Jones was a disappointment after signing a three-year, $11.75 million contract and could be on shaky ground for a starting job. Lattimore, a restricted free agent who has yet to sign his tender, got some playing time last year while Jones was hurt and could push for the starting job. So could Barrington, a promising rookie who missed the second half of the season because of a hamstring injury.

Outside linebacker: Clay Matthews, Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer, Chase Thomas.

Analysis: Neal and Perry played almost exclusively at outside linebacker last season, so there's a good chance they'll be a big part of this group again. But behind Matthews are a couple of second-year players, Mulumba and Palmer, who played more than anyone expected last year as a rookies. Mulumba, an undrafted free agent, played better than Palmer, a sixth-round pick. Thomas was signed early in the offseason off the street after spending most of last season on the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad.

Safeties: Morgan Burnett, Sean Richardson, Chris Banjo.

Analysis: Easily the thinnest position on the roster, there's still likely to be several additions here, probably via the draft. However, McCarthy said cornerback Micah Hyde will get some work at safety. Whether he's a candidate to start next to Burnett (a strong safety), however, remains to be seen. Burnett needs to bounce back from a disappointing season, but there's little reason to think his job is in jeopardy. Richardson returned late last season from a serious neck injury and showed promise. Banjo played more early in the season than he did late last year.

Cornerbacks: Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde, Jarrett Bush, Davon House, James Nixon, Jumel Rolle, Antonio Dennard.

Analysis: This is among the Packers' deepest positions thanks to the return of Shields, who signed a four-year, $39 million contract, and Hayward, who is expected to be healthy after a hamstring injury limited him to just three games last season. Williams closed the season playing perhaps as well as he did during the Super Bowl season of 2010, which is why they kept him despite a $7.5 million salary. Bush had his best season in coverage last year, while House was a disappointment. Nixon's speed makes him an intriguing prospect. Rolle was promoted from the practice squad late last season, while Dennard joined the practice squad late last season.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers signed Julius Peppers and Letroy Guion in free agency to bolster their defensive line, not necessarily to replace certain players.

That was the takeaway from comments coach Mike McCarthy made at the NFL annual meetings this week when asked about the possibility that free-agent defensive linemen Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett could return to Green Bay.

Both remain on the open market.

However, their situations are different.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Jolly
AP Photo/Tom LynnJohnny Jolly recently was cleared to resume normal offseason workouts after neck surgery in January.
Jolly's is mostly a medical one. He had neck surgery in January to repair a bulging disc that bothered him late last season. Doctors fused together his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae using bone from his hip. He recently was cleared to resume normal offseason workouts.

McCarthy said the Packers remain interested in bringing back the 31-year-old, who returned to football last season after sitting out for three years while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and also spending time in prison.

"Yeah, if it definitely works out, I mean we're monitoring that," McCarthy said. "I think Johnny did a nice job last year. You have to be very pleased for where he started and where he finished. I think he gave us every inch of what he had and then some. I was very pleased with Johnny's contribution last year."

Jolly played last season for the veteran’s minimum of $715,000.

Pickett, 34, made $6.2 million in base salary and bonuses last season in the final year of a four-year, $24.925 million deal. Although he played in all 16 games for the second straight season and missed only four games during his most recent contract, his production dropped off last season, when he recorded only 19 tackles, his fewest since his rookie season of 2001.

"We'll watch what's going on with Ryan," McCarthy said.

There might not be room on the roster for both Jolly and Pickett. Even though McCarthy said Peppers will work mostly with the linebackers, he still has a deep defensive line group. The Packers return Josh Boyd, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones and Jerel Worthy -- all four of which are still on their rookie contracts. They also plan to return Mike Neal back to the defensive line, at least on a part-time basis, after playing almost exclusively at outside linebacker last season. Nick Perry and Peppers also could split time between the two spots in what McCarthy calls the elephant position.

The Packers also re-signed nose tackle B.J. Raji and brought in Guion, who played for the Minnesota Vikings.

"Let's not forget about Letroy," McCarthy said. "I thought he was an excellent acquisition that we haven't even brought up. I thought he's played very well the last three times we played the Vikings. So he's been an excellent addition to our defensive front."
Don't put a label on new Green Bay Packers defensive end Julius Peppers.

In fact, he probably shouldn't even be called a defensive end.

The way Packers coach Mike McCarthy explained it to reporters on Tuesday at the NFL annual meetings in Orlando, Fla., the newest addition to the Packers' defense will play a hybrid position -- a combination of an outside linebacker and defensive lineman the Packers will call an "elephant."

[+] EnlargePeppers
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Packers plan to use Julius Peppers in a variety of ways along their defensive front.
It's a spot that McCarthy first revealed during an interview at the NFL scouting combine last month that was in his plans, well before he knew he would have Peppers on his roster.

In preparing for that role, Peppers will spend most of his individual practice time and meeting sessions with the linebackers, who were merged into one group under assistant head coach Winston Moss and position assistant Scott McCurley following the resignation of outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene shortly after last season ended. It also means Peppers will not work directly under defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, who was Peppers' defensive line coach and defensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-08.

"Elephant is a term used for a multiple-position player along the defensive front," McCarthy told reporters at the league meetings. "Julius will be part of that group.

"The specifics I'd rather get into once the players find out, once we go through it with the players, but that's the big-picture outlook for the way we'll use Julius defensively."

In his only public comments since he signed with the Packers, Peppers, who was released this month by the Chicago Bears, told the Packers' web site he expected his role to be "something different" than it was during his stint with the Bears.

This would qualify as such.

Even before the Packers signed Peppers to a three-year, $26 million contract on March 15, they had planned to use the elephant position for Mike Neal and Nick Perry. In some defenses, the elephant position is used to describe an end who lines up between the offensive tackle and the tight end (in what is called the 7 technique) but based on McCarthy's comments on Tuesday, it appears he has multiple positions in mind for his elephants.

Perry, a former first-round draft pick, was a defensive end in college but switched to outside linebacker with only moderate success the past two years. Neal played his first three NFL seasons at defensive end before he switched to outside linebacker last season.

The trio of Neal, Peppers and Perry could be interchangeable this season.

"It's not only your position, your alignment, it's your assignment," McCarthy said. "So he has more to offer in his opinion, and I agree with him, from an assignment standpoint. So where he aligns, competing against Julius, he's lined up on both sides at defensive end. He has been an inside rusher, so those experiences he already has and will continue to do so."

The addition of Peppers and the redefinition of some positions could make coordinator Dom Capers’ defense look a lot less like the traditional 3-4 he has run throughout his 28-year NFL coaching career. But McCarthy said Capers' defense has evolved into a two-linemen look more than ever to combat the spread offenses used so prolifically around the league.

"How much 3-4 defense do we play?" McCarthy said. "We've been averaging 24-25 percent over the past five years. So we're playing so much sub."

When the Packers do use their base defense, McCarthy confirmed that recently re-signed lineman B.J. Raji will return to his old position, nose tackle. Raji played more at defensive end the past three seasons, when his productivity waned. McCarthy said the plan for Raji will be to "cut him loose."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers signed Julius Peppers to do one thing: rush the quarterback.

How they plan to use the 34-year-old defensive end in their scheme, however, is not yet clear.

Peppers has not been available to reporters since he signed a three-year, $30 million contract on Saturday, but he did speak briefly to the team's website and revealed a little bit about what coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have discussed for him.

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsJulius Peppers may line up in the 'elephant' position for the Packers.
"I'm going to let Coach McCarthy deal with questions about the position and the scheme," Peppers told Packers.com. "I'm not really sure. We haven't talked in detail about what the plan is going to be for me, but I can say it's going to be something different.”

McCarthy's next media appearance likely will come at the NFL annual meetings next week in Orlando, Fla.

Early this offseason, well before the Packers even knew Peppers would be available, McCarthy said he and Capers remained committed to the 3-4 defense as their base scheme but planned several tweaks in order to better utilize their personnel and remain multiple in their looks even if injuries hit like they did last season.

"We were not as multiple maybe this year as we've been in prior years really because of the stress of injuries on that unit so we want to get back to some of the things that we did very well in the past and make sure we're carrying enough packages to utilize all of our players," McCarthy said at the time.

Peppers played in a 4-3 during his four seasons with the Chicago Bears and at 6-foot-7 and 287 pounds, he was an ideal defensive end in that scheme. However, in a 3-4 base defense the ends don't line up as wide as they do in a 4-3. And in nickel and dime situations, they move inside even more. Early in Peppers' career, in an ESPN.com story about the differences between ends in the two schemes, he was quoted as saying he preferred to play outside rather inside like 3-4 ends do.

"I really don't like being down inside," Peppers said at the time. "I feel like when I'm down in that area like a tackle, I don't feel like I'm being used properly. It's hard, because you have to be a lot more run conscious and a lot more physical, which, being physical, that's no problem for me. But I'd rather get on the edge and rush the passer."

What Peppers described as being ideal is essentially the 7-technique position in which a pass-rusher lines up on the inside shoulder of a tight end. McCarthy calls that the elephant position, and it's a spot he talked last month about using this season.

Peppers could be perfect for that role and could be used in a rotation with Mike Neal and Nick Perry.

Regardless of how the Packers use him, they expect more pressure from their defensive front this season. Although last season Peppers registered only seven sacks (tied for the second-lowest total of his 12-year career) despite playing in every game, that total would have ranked second on the Packers behind Clay Matthews (7.5) and first among the team's defensive linemen.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Who says Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson doesn't sign any free agents?

Yes, you've heard that line before, but almost every time it should have been hashtagged with this: #sarcasm. How else can you explain a signing such as Raymond Webber?

Who?

Exactly.

No hashtag needed this time.

Not for Julius Peppers, who signed a three-year, $30 million contract Saturday to continue his career in Green Bay.

This is more than a little splash. It's cannonball-sized, especially for Thompson, who specializes in no-name signings such as Webber, a street free-agent tight end whose signing last month barely made a ripple.

Not since 2006, when Thompson signed cornerback Charles Woodson, has he made a move like this. This won't count as a true unrestricted-free-agent signing, at least not under the terms of the NFL's formula for awarding compensatory draft picks, because Peppers was released last week by the Chicago Bears.

Forget technicalities. This was a significant -- and much-needed -- move for a defense that sank to 25th in the NFL last season and needs an infusion of playmakers.

There's plenty still to be learned about Peppers, including how much the eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end still has left at age 34 and where exactly he will play in Dom Capers' 3-4 defensive scheme.

He's coming off his lowest sack total (7.0) since 2007, but, in his past three seasons combined with the Bears, he has 29.5 sacks. In his 12 NFL seasons, he has had fewer than 10 sacks only three times (2003, 2007 and last year), and he hasn't missed a game since 2007.

At 6-foot-7 and 287 pounds, Peppers has been an ideal 4-3 pass-rushing defensive end. But defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme don't typically command $10 million average salaries because they're not asked to jet up the field and pile up sacks like 4-3 ends.

Perhaps Capers will use Peppers in the elephant end position coach Mike McCarthy recently discussed as a possibility for Nick Perry and Mike Neal, both of whom can be considered hybrid defensive end/outside linebackers.

The possibilities could be endless.

Regardless of how Capers uses Peppers, it should help outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Not that teams won't still double-team Matthews, but say Capers lines up Peppers and Matthews on the same side of the formation. What's an offensive coordinator to do?

Peppers nearly ruined the Packers' 2013 season. Had fullback John Kuhn not gotten the slightest of chip blocks on Peppers in the final minute of the regular-season finale at Soldier Field, Peppers would have drilled quarterback Aaron Rodgers before he could have released the 48-yard bomb to Randall Cobb for the game-winning and NFC North-winning touchdown pass.

He could be just what the Packers need in 2014.

Thompson might be done in free agency for this season. For that matter, he might be done in free agency for next season and the one after that. But don't say he doesn't sign free agents. Hashtag: #serious

Monthly review: Green Bay Packers

February, 28, 2014
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- We've come to the end of the first month without football in 2014 for the Green Bay Packers.

Free agency is still more than a week away. The NFL draft is more than two months away. Yet as usual in the NFL, plenty of business was conducted in February. On the final day of the month, it's a good time to review what we learned about the Packers over the last four weeks.

Finley not done yet?: Thoughts of tight end Jermichael Finley's demise in Green Bay may have been premature. For those who thought Finley would be cast aside just like safety Nick Collins was following his neck injury in 2011, coach Mike McCarthy said that although Finley had the same fusion surgery that Collins had, there were some differences that have left the Packers' medical staff feeling more optimistic about a return.

Cap space galore: With the salary cap likely to be at least $132 million this season, the Packers will have the sixth-most cap space to use, as of figures compiled this week.

Position changes: Every year, McCarthy and his staff seem to tweak a position or two, and this year appears to be no different. McCarthy said recently that in an effort to get cornerback Micah Hyde on the field more, he could play some safety this season. Also, outside linebacker Nick Perry may get the chance to play a new position that the Packers are developing in their defense, an elephant end spot.

No deals, no cuts: While talks with cornerback Sam Shields intensified last week at the combine and remain ongoing, the Packers did not sign any of their 17 unrestricted free agents to be. With free agency set to begin on March 11, the Packers still have plenty of work to do in order to retain some of their key players. The Packers also didn't make any salary-cap related cuts.

New coaches, new roles: McCarthy finalized his coaching staff changes, and perhaps the most noticeable change was how the linebackers will be coached. The resignation of outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene last month prompted McCarthy to bring both the outside and inside linebackers together under assistant head coach Winston Moss, who previously coached inside linebackers.

More involvement: McCarthy also hinted that he will be more involved in the defense, at least in the offseason, in an effort to improve it over last season, when it ranked 25th in the NFL in yards allowed. McCarthy said he would "set the vision for the defense, [and] Dom Capers and the defensive staff will carry it out."

Wrap-up thoughts from the combine

February, 23, 2014
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INDIANAPOLIS – The media access portion of the NFL scouting combine ended on Sunday afternoon, but events for the invitees and league personnel continues through Tuesday.

Looking back over the four days spent in and around Lucas Oil Stadium, there was plenty to be learned.

Here are some final thoughts from the Green Bay Packers’ perspective.

Lineup changes: This is the time of year where the coaches ponder new roles for new players. We already told you about a possible new role in the defense that might better suit Nick Perry, and coach Mike McCarthy’s desire to turn Eddie Lacy -- and the other running backs -- into three-down players in order to limit substitutions and therefore speed up the offense. Also, cornerback Micah Hyde could add safety to his list of duties, while David Bakhtiari appears likely to remain at left tackle, but there’s been no decision made on where Bryan Bulaga will play.

Salary-cap space: With the 2014 salary cap expected to exceed $130 million and possibly be as high as $132 million, the Packers will have even more room than they expected. Including unused cap space, they could carry over from last season, the Packers will have more than $30 million of salary-cap space available for this offseason.

Tag or no tag: General manager Ted Thompson would not reveal whether he would use the franchise tag as a way to retain cornerback Sam Shields. Although they have the space to absorb the more than $11 million that the tag would cost, Thompson would prefer to sign Shields to a more cap-friendly, long-term deal. Shields’ agent, Drew Rosenhaus, was expected to continue discussions with the Packers in Indianapolis.

Talking to prospects: On the final day of media access, among the players who confirmed they have met or will meet with the Packers included Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, Notre Dame defensive lineman Louis Nix III and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama and Calvin Pryor of Louisville. There are two kinds of interviews -- formal ones that last 15 minutes (teams are limited to 60 of those) and informal interviews (of which there is no limit).

Up next: Free agency officially begins on March 11 but teams can start negotiating with free agents on March 8. The next official league gathering is the NFL annual meeting, known as the owners meeting, March 23-26 in Orlando, Fla.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The first hint of it came earlier this month, when Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy was discussing the changes to his staff.

He spoke of setting agenda for the defense, which he knew was in need of repair.

“Vision, I think I said,” McCarthy said during a break from the NFL scouting combine.

Either way, it has become clear that McCarthy, who runs the offense and serves as the playcaller on that side of the ball, will be more involved in the defense, at least in the short term.

[+] EnlargeMike McCarthy, Dom Capers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerDefensive coordinator Dom Capers and head coach Mike McCarthy are using the offseason to work on changes to the Packers' defense, which ranked 25th in the NFL in 2013.
“I need to do that more maybe in the offseason,” McCarthy said during an interview at his hotel adjacent Lucas Oil Stadium. “I go through this every year. You can’t do both. I've talked about it. I've researched it. I've talked to other people about it.”

For now, though, it will be a collective effort on the part of McCarthy and Capers, who said he shares the same vision as his boss does to repair a defense that slipped to 25th in the NFL last season. They want it back to the way it played in 2009 and 2010, when it ranked second and fifth in the NFL, respectively, in Capers' first two seasons as the Packers defensive coordinator.

“That’s obviously the goal,” said Capers, who is attending his 29th scouting combine. “We’ll have to see. There’s a lot that goes into it. Right now, there’s a lot of unanswered questions. We’ll have to figure out who we have, and we’ll have to do a really good job through all the phases of the offseason.

“What we did the first year when we came in, I think it’s just a matter of getting a group and figuring out what they can do the best and adapting what they do to what we do best.”

That’s part of the mission at the combine, where Capers and McCarthy not only are scouting potential draft picks but also will continue to hash out the specifics of the changes they plan to implement.

“We’re still working through it,” McCarthy said. “We sat down [after the season] and said there’s some things that I feel we need to change. We talked about a bunch of them with him, the staff, and Dom and I will get together down here, and hopefully we’ll have it sorted out here in the next month and have it ready for the players when they get back here in April.”

As McCarthy said on Friday, Capers agreed that the Packers don’t plan to get smaller on the defensive line. But at the same time, they want to be able to handle the challenges that high-speed, spread offenses present.

“You need both,” Capers said.

What McCarthy doesn't want is what happened last season, when the injury problems forced the Packers to toss out a good portion of their defensive plays that were practiced over and over in training camp.

Capers’ defense was ranked 11th overall and fifth against the run heading into Week 9 last season before its free-fall ensued.

“We've got to address the fact that we don’t have control over exactly who’s available each week,” McCarthy said. “So something has to adjust or charge or emphasize. I think it’s a very practical approach, a common-sense approach. The availability of our players, we don't have nine guys on defense that average 1,000 reps a year -- we never have -- so let's quit training our defense that way. That’s really what it comes down to.”

In short, it means trying to become more versatile regardless of who's available on a given week. McCarthy, however, cautioned not to take that to mean the Packers will overload the players with so much scheme that confusion causes miscommunications that lead to breakdowns.

Rather, he’s shooting for a more-creativity, less-volume approach.

“We weren't as multiple last year out of necessity,” Capers said. “If you look over the first four years, we were very multiple. But we weren't as much last year.”

While the coaches figure out how to use their players -- whether cornerback Micah Hyde will play more safety, if there’s a new role in store for Nick Perry, how much more they can get out of Datone Jones and so on -- and general manager Ted Thompson works on re-signing players like cornerback Sam Shields, defensive lineman B.J. Raji and outside linebacker Mike Neal and finding new ones either in free agency or the draft, McCarthy and Capers will continue to look for ways to restore the defense to what it was in Capers' first two seasons in Green Bay.

“I have great confidence in Dom and the defensive staff, but the challenges that any staff has -- and it's obviously a good staff when you’re together that long and you’re successful as we've been -- you can pull away from the foundation,” McCarthy said. “You've got a lot of ideas, too creative, and the trap you've always got to watch yourself that you can fall into -- and I’m not saying we’re there -- but there's times that we were probably close to that, is who you think you are and who you really are is not the same.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- Two seasons into his NFL career, former first-round draft pick Nick Perry still hasn’t fully shown he can make the transition from collegiate defensive end at USC to NFL outside linebacker with the Green Bay Packers.

He might not have to this year.

Neal
Perry
Perry
Among the ideas the Packers have considered to tweak and improve their defense is to use an elephant defensive end position, and Perry is one of the players whom coach Mike McCarthy sees in that role, he said Friday during an interview at his hotel during a break from the NFL scouting combine.

“We’re looking at different combinations,” McCarthy said. “That’s part of the thing I was talking about [earlier in the day at the combine] utilizing personnel better.”

McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers actually toyed with the position last offseason, but never employed it. McCarthy explained the elephant end position as someone who is a “tweener.” Perry was considered that by scouts who debated whether his best position in the NFL would be defensive end or outside linebacker.

The elephant position would essentially cover both spots. McCarthy described it as a position in which a defensive player would never line up on the inside shoulder of an offensive tackle. Instead, the elephant end would play what’s called a 7-technique, which lines up on the inside shoulder of a tight end.

It was a position that Charles Haley of the San Francisco 49ers made famous in the 1980s and 1990s.

That might suit Perry, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds. In parts of two seasons in which he was slowed by injuries, Perry has played in 17 regular-season games and has six sacks. He has been most effective using his powerful bull-rush move.

A year ago, the Packers decided to try defensive end Mike Neal at outside linebacker, and it was largely successful. According to McCarthy, Neal was never supposed to play as much at outside linebacker as he did.

“We developed a position called the elephant and we never really [used it],” McCarthy said. “We trained it in training camp. 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.”

McCarthy said he believes that Neal’s best position, especially on third downs, remains the 3-technique position, which is a lineman who plays opposite the guard.

“I think he’s a real force in there,” McCarthy said.

Some of the plans could hinge on whether Neal returns. He was in the final year of his contract last season, and is scheduled to become a free agent next month.

Countdown to combine: Packers part 3

February, 19, 2014
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As we head toward the NFL scouting combine, which starts Wednesday in Indianapolis, it’s a good time to look at the Green Bay Packers' greatest needs this offseason and which prospects general manager Ted Thompson might be taking a closer look at during workouts and interviews this week.

Which position is the greatest need could be debated, but there’s no arguing that it’s on the defensive side of the ball. Before things get underway at Lucas Oil Stadium, we’ll look at three areas on defense where the Packers need help.

Monday was dedicated to the safety position. On Tuesday, we looked at the defensive linemen.

We’ll wrap up the defensive side of the ball with the linebacker spots, both inside and outside.

Why the Packers need help: If the Packers are going to field a defense that at all resembles the units fielded by the NFC’s top two teams -- the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers -- they need to upgrade their linebackers. Specifically, they need more speed both on the outside and up the middle.

The Packers seem satisfied with A.J. Hawk but might be looking to upgrade the other inside spot, which was occupied most of last season by Brad Jones. The Packers gave Jones a three-year, $11.75 million deal that included a $3 million signing bonus.

On the outside, they continued their search for someone to complement Clay Matthews. Mike Neal’s conversion from defensive end went perhaps better than could have been expected. He had five sacks, including four in the last seven games, but is scheduled to be a free agent next month. For the second straight season, Nick Perry (a first-round pick in 2012) battled injuries and still hasn’t shown whether he’s a natural fit at outside linebacker.

Linebackers the Packers should be watching:

Chris Borland, Wisconsin: Probably the second-best inside linebacker in the draft behind Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, who almost certainly won’t be around when the Packers pick at No. 21. The only issue with Borland is that he’s a tad short at 5-foot-11, so he will need to have an impressive showing at the combine and his pro day in order to convince the Packers he can be effective.

Ryan Shazier, Ohio State: With the top two outside linebackers -- Buffalo’s Khalil Mack and UCLA’s Anthony Barr -- likely being top-10 picks, Shazier might be the best remaining option. But there are questions about whether he can rush the passer.

Michael Sam, Missouri: After revealing earlier this month that he is gay, Sam will be perhaps the most scrutinized player at the combine. Projected as a mid-round pick, teams will have to decide whether he can make the adjustment from defensive end to outside linebacker.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There are alterations coming to the Green Bay Packers’ defense but nothing dramatic like a switch from the 3-4 as their base scheme.

Despite changes to the structure of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ coaching staff that seemingly could have made it easy to transition to a 4-3 scheme, the Packers are not headed in that direction.

“Our defense is going to change some,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “You don’t ever stay the same. I’ll set the vision for the defense. Dom Capers and the defensive staff will carry it out.”

[+] EnlargeDom Capers
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsDom Capers' defense struggled at times last season amid a rash of injuries to key players.
The biggest change -- so far -- is how the linebackers will be coached. Last week, McCarthy announced that assistant head coach Winston Moss, who previously coached inside linebackers, will add outside linebackers to his duties following the resignation of Kevin Greene.

Under that coaching structure, it would have made it possible for McCarthy to integrate more 4-3 principles into the defense.

While not all of the defensive changes have been hammered out, that will not be one of them.

“The only thing that I’ve been instructed is basically the structure’s going to stay the same as far as the 3-4,” Moss said. “If anything changes there, then that has not been made available to me so I’m moving forward that we’ll be structurally the same. Obviously my approach will just naturally bring some different philosophies and different approaches from the standpoint that I like to have a sense of those guys just doing a lot of things well.”

The Packers slipped to 25th in the NFL in yards allowed last season, down from 11th in 2012, and reverted to the form of 2011, when it finished last in the league. In Capers’ first two seasons as the Packers’ defensive coordinator, his units ranked second and fifth.

Injuries to key defensive players -- most notably outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry and cornerback Casey Hayward -- prevented Capers from using some of the myriad packages and concepts in his playbook last season.

From the sound of it, McCarthy wants to get back to being more versatile on defense.

“We were not as multiple maybe this year as we’ve been in prior years really because of the stress of injuries on that unit so we want to get back to some of the things that we did very well in the past and make sure we’re carrying enough packages to utilize all of our players,” McCarthy said. “We obviously need to get better on defense, and I think these moves that we’ve made on defense will definitely put us on that path.”

McCarthy said Capers, who has run a 3-4 system his entire NFL coaching career, has previously utilized one coach to oversee both the inside and outside linebackers even though he has never done so in Green Bay. Plus, Moss will have an assistant, Scott McCurley, who was promoted from defensive quality control coach.

While the responsibilities of the inside and outside linebackers differ significantly in Capers’ scheme, the voice in front of the position meeting room will be the same.

“You know, Winston, he’s really going to be the leader of the group,” McCurley said. “I think the players have a huge amount of respect for Winston’s leadership, and what he brings to the table there, and from there, I’m there to assist him, whether it be inside guys or outside guys.”
PHILADELPHIA -- The good news for Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly is he doesn’t have to spend the next couple months traveling to high school kids’ homes and recruiting them.

The bad news?

"It’s a different league," Kelly said. "This isn't recruiting where you can go out and offer and try to get them to come. There's a selection in the draft process and we're not going to pick until the 22nd [spot in the first round]. There's 21 other guys that we may covet, but we don't have an opportunity to get them."

If a team drafted 22d every year and did well, it could be awfully good. Based on the last 10 years, drafting only players taken between No. 22 and No. 32 (the end of the first round), a team could have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, wide receivers Dez Bryant and Santonio Holmes, running backs Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson, linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, safety Brandon Meriweather and defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and Sharrif Floyd.

You could do worse. Plenty of teams did do worse. Cleveland took two quarterbacks, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden, at No. 22.

Later we’ll look at some possible players the Eagles could consider at No. 22 in this year’s draft. For now, here’s a quick look at the 22nd pick in each of the past 10 NFL drafts, along with a few players that were on the board at the time (I didn’t go beyond the end of the first round out of fairness; just looking at first-round graded players):

2013: Cornerback Desmond Trufant from Washington, selected by Atlanta.

On the board: Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, WR/Returner Cordarrelle Patterson, defensive end Datone Jones.

2012: Quarterback Brandon Weeden from Oklahoma State, selected by Cleveland.

On the board: Linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Nick Perry, running back Doug Martin.

2011: Offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo from Boston College, selected by Indianapolis.

On the board: Offensive lineman Danny Watkins, defensive end Cameron Jordan, running back Mark Ingram.

2010: Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas from Georgia Tech, selected by Denver.

On the board: Wide receiver Dez Bryant, quarterback Tim Tebow, cornerback Devin McCourty.

2009: Wide receiver Percy Harvin from Florida, selected by Minnesota.

On the board: Offensive tackle Michael Oher, cornerback Vontae Davis, linebacker Clay Matthews.

2008: RB Felix Jones from Arkansas, selected by Dallas.

On the board: Running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson, cornerback Mike Jenkins.

2007: Quarterback Brady Quinn from Notre Dame, selected by Cleveland.

On the board: Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, safety Brandon Meriweather, linebackers Jon Beason and Anthony Spencer, offensive tackle Joe Staley.

2006: Linebacker Manny Lawson from N.C. State, selected by San Francisco.

On the board: Offensive lineman Davin Joseph, wide receiver Santonio Holmes, running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka.

2005: Wide receiver Mark Clayton from Oklahoma, selected by Baltimore.

On the board: Cornerback Fabian Washington, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, wide receiver Roddy White.

2004: Quarterback J.P. Losman from Tulane, selected by Buffalo.

On the board: Defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs, running back Steven Jackson, defensive end Jason Babin.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Two Green Bay Packers' starting defensive players sustained knee injuries on the San Francisco 49ers' opening drive of Sunday's NFC wild-card game at Lambeau Field.

Cornerback Sam Shields sustained a left knee injury and outside linebacker Mike Neal injured his right knee on the same drive.

Both were carted to the locker room and were questionable to return.

Shields was replaced by Davon House.

The loss of Neal is particularly costly because the Packers went into the game with only three outside linebackers. Clay Matthews is out with a thumb injury, while rookie Nate Palmer was a healthy scratch. It leaves them with only Nick Perry and Andy Mulumba unless Neal can return. Perry is playing on a bad foot, and his snaps have been limited in recent weeks.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- For the past three weeks, the only practice reps Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy took came last Friday and even those were limited and not in pads.

Lacy
So the fact that Lacy was back on the field for Thursday's practice is a good indication that his sprained right ankle has improved.

Lacy was officially listed as a limited participant, but he was in full pads and might be as healthy as he's been at midweek since he was injured in the Dec. 8 game against the Atlanta Falcons.

“Eddie looked good,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after practice. “He was limited in practice [but had a] good day's work.”

It's possible the Packers could rest Lacy on Friday to make sure he's fresh for Sunday's NFC wild-card playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Here's the full injury report:
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers are about as healthy as they have been in months heading into Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Matthews
The only player not at practice on Thursday was outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who already has been ruled out because of his thumb injury.

The other 52 players on the roster all took part in the full-pads practice.

Running back Eddie Lacy (ankle) practiced on a Thursday for the first time since he sprained his right ankle on Dec. 8 against the Atlanta Falcons. The past three weeks, Lacy had been practicing only on Fridays.

Banged-up linebackers Brad Jones (ankle), Mike Neal (abdomen), and Nick Perry (foot) all practiced.

The Packers don’t appear to be limiting quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb, who returned last Sunday after lengthy absences. Neither was even listed on Wednesday’s injury report.

The full injury report will be available after practice.

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