2015 Most Important Packers No. 2: Clay Matthews, LB

Unclear whether linebacker will play inside or outside

As fluid an athlete as Clay Matthews is on the field – wherever he’s lining up – the Green Bay Packers linebacker is even smoother when it comes to talking about his job description.

Folks that have been hoping for Matthews to go off on a rant about how he doesn’t really like playing inside – something he did at least to some extent to his younger brother Casey after making the move midway through last season – have come away disappointed. He’s taking one for the team, plain and simple.

The move came after the Packers’ bye midway through last season and two weeks before Matthews was set to face his brother and the Philadelphia Eagles. After registering a sack in his inside-outside debut against Chicago, Matthews vented to his little brother, who relayed his big bro’s feelings to Philly.com’s Les Bowen, saying, “I don’t think he liked too much about it. … He likes getting after the passer, taking on the linemen. I told him to look at it this way: He’s the highest-paid inside linebacker in the league. He got a laugh out of that.”

The improvement the Packers defense made after the move, though, is no joke.

At the time of the move, the Packers’ defense was ranked 25th in the 32-team NFL, including dead last against the run. By season’s end, the Packers defense was 15th in overall defense and No. 23 against the run. In a stunning turnaround, the Packers went from giving up an average of 153.5 yards per game on the ground during the first eight games to 86.4 yards per game in the final eight. Matthews, meanwhile, earned his fifth Pro Bowl nod.

“Am I happy about it? Yeah, of course. I think you saw our team and our defense, how well we did the second half of the season and how well we improved — run, pass, win column, everything down the board, as well as my personal statistics,” Matthews said during OTAs. “It’s definitely going to provide a good challenge – and I’m up for it as far as learning a different position.”

Why he’s important:  The Packers clearly didn’t feel a pressing need to add other inside linebacker options this offseason – despite cutting their two opening-day starters at inside linebacker from last season (A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones) and letting a third part-time starter (Jamari Lattimore) depart as a free agent – because they planned all along on using Matthews there again this season. Only the drafting of fourth-round pick Jake Ryan and the outside-inside conversions of returnees Carl Bradford and Nate Palmer, neither of whom played a regular-season snap last year, bolstered the position. So it’s clear that the Packers expect Matthews to play inside while also getting outside on the edge on obvious passing downs. That’ll mean plenty of playing time for their $66 million man, making him indispensable.

“[Matthews] is a great pass rusher, and he’s going to continue to play as many different positions as we could possibly get out of him,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We need to utilize Clay as much as we can. He’s a great player and we need to give him as many opportunities as we can to make plays.”

If he delivers:  Matthews finished last season with 11 sacks and 69 tackles, but his own numbers were starkly different before and after the move, too: He had 26 tackles and 2.5 sacks before it, 43 tackles and 8.5 sacks after it. According to Pro Football Focus, Matthews had five QB hits and 18 hurries before the move and six hits and 13 hurries after it.

If Matthews’ produces at the rate he did after the move, he’s looking at a 17-sack season, which would be a career best.

If he disappoints:  Matthews has seldom disappointed when healthy. It’s when his balky hamstring acts up or he breaks his thumb that he ends up not being productive because he’s not on the field. That means keeping him healthy, even though the Packers managed to go 4-2 in the six games Matthews missed with the broken thumb in 2013 – and one of those losses was the game in which Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone against Chicago.

The Packers’ outside linebacker depth last season – with so-called “elephants” Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Mike Neal – certainly helped Capers and McCarthy make the decision to move Matthews. And if something befalls him this year, those three – along with youngsters Andy Mulumba, Jayrone Elliott and Adrian Hubbard will have to pitch in.

Quote, unquote:  “Mentally I’m ready. They’re going to rush me from all over the field, they’re going to drop me from all over the field. And I expect to do a multitude of things this year.” – Matthews, on playing inside and outside in 2015.