Clay Matthews: Packers' OLB depth 'not that great'

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Clay Matthews wasn’t surprised the Green Bay Packers took cornerbacks in both the first and second rounds of last month’s NFL draft.

He was admittedly taken aback when round after round clicked past and general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t add anyone to Matthews’ position group until his final selection, No. 248 overall, when he picked Kendall Donnerson of Southeast Missouri State.

While the depth was obvious at cornerback, where top draft picks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson gave defensive passing-game coordinator Joe Whitt the freedom to shuffle seemingly capable defensive backs in and out with regularity during last week’s open OTA practice, the session also revealed just how meager things look at outside linebacker.

With Matthews and Nick Perry nursing injuries -- Matthews underwent offseason knee surgery and Perry was out because of an ankle issue -- the Packers’ No. 1 defense used a rotation of Reggie Gilbert, Kyler Fackrell and Vince Biegel at the key pass-rushing position.

“Well, I wasn’t surprised with the first two picks; I’ll go ahead and say that,” Matthews said. “But obviously, you look at the depth at the outside-linebacker position, and it’s not that great. That’s not a slight to the guys who are behind Nick and myself, but you look around the league, a lot of times they’re rotating in pass-rushers. You can look a couple years ago when we had Mike Neal and Julius [Peppers] here, Datone [Jones] as well. We had a pretty good rotation. Sometimes I’m sure it doesn’t work out the way in which [the front office wants], and obviously they only get so many picks and only have so much cap money to spend.”

The Packers had the chance to take an edge rusher at No. 14, their original spot in the first round, but instead opted to trade back. The Saints jumped up to take defensive end Marcus Davenport at 14. Dynamic linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (who went No. 16 to the Bills) was also surprisingly available.

“At the same time, it does show their confidence in Nick and myself, as well as the guys we have,” Matthews added. “At some time, I’m sure it will be addressed, but for the time being, the guys we have here are the guys who have to hold up their end of the bargain.”

Former GM Ted Thompson tried a late addition to the group last summer, when he signed veteran Ahmad Brooks to a one-year, $3.5 million deal -- the same contract Peppers signed with the Panthers. Brooks gave the Packers a measly 1.5 sacks, while Peppers had 11 in Carolina.

To be sure, there are other ways to get to the quarterback, and by signing free-agent defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson, the Packers could field one of the top interior pass-rushing combinations in the league if Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark perform as expected.

Perhaps new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine convinced Gutekunst and coach Mike McCarthy that he can make do with the current collection of outside linebackers. But the injury concern has not gone away. Matthews, the Packers' career sacks leader (80), hasn’t played a full season since 2015, while Perry never has made it through an entire season without missing a game. What's more, Matthews is entering the final season of his contract, and the Packers could opt out of Perry's five-year, $60 million deal after this season and begin to pick up salary-cap space.

While Matthews and Perry have combined for 110.5 career sacks, their top three backups have a combined six -- Fackrell has five, Gilbert one and Biegel none.

Maybe Donnerson can help, but counting on a seventh-round pick to contribute immediately is wishful thinking.

“That’s one of the main reasons why I’m here,” Donnerson said when asked about his pass-rush ability.