In 2014, the Packers were hurting at inside linebacker. Green Bay tried various combinations of A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore, and Sam Barrington for the two inside spots. Regardless of who they played, the job wasn't done as well as Green Bay would have liked. After five and a half years at outside linebacker, the Packers attempted to solve their ILB problem by putting Clay Matthews there.
After one and a half years at inside linebacker, the Packers have now elected to move Matthews back to the outside. The move is a gamble for Green Bay, because in 2013 and the first half of 2014, when Matthews was still at OLB, he wasn’t playing nearly as well as he was in his first four years in the league on the outside, and it is more likely Matthews' production in 2016 will be similar to that of the last three years (2013–2015 seasons), as opposed to the previous four to seven years (2009–2012).
The Packers also have a lot more depth at outside linebacker than they do at inside linebacker, so their need at inside linebacker, overall, is greater. Here is how Matthews' move back to outside impacts each aspect of play.
Impact on run game
While Matthews hasn’t been a great player against the run in recent years, the other inside players for the Packers haven’t been much better. As a rookie, Jake Ryan was the highest-graded inside linebacker on the roster against the run (64.1 on 1–100 scale), but Matthews is likely their best option at the other inside linebacker spot. The current projected starter opposite Ryan in the base defense is Sam Barrington, a player who started seeing playing time in 2014, but missed most of 2015 with an ankle injury. In 10 career starts, Barrington only received an above-average run-defense grade in one game. Matthews graded above-average in just under half of his games at inside linebacker.
The Packers are better equipped to stop the run with their players at outside linebacker. Nick Perry has made his mark on the team as a run defender. His run-stop percentage of 7.1 was 10th-best among 3-4 outside linebackers last season. If you compare Julius Peppers to how Clay Matthews played in 2013 and early 2014—when Matthews last was outside linebacker full-time—Peppers grades out better on a per-play basis. Former first-round pick Datone Jones was moved from defensive linemen to outside linebacker late last season, and it’s a move the Packers are likely to stick with for 2016. In his limited time, Jones has also out-graded Matthews on a per-play basis against the run.
Along with those players, the Packers have other young options who looked good on small sample sizes. Jayrone Elliott recorded a 9.3 run-stop percentage last season, fifth-best for 3-4 outside linebackers with 75 or more run snaps. If you lower that criteria to 50 or more run stops, then Lerentee McCray, at 15.7 percent, tops the list. (The Packers added McCray this offseason via free agency from the Broncos.) Not all of these players are likely to make the final 53-man roster, but based on how well they’ve played on a limited basis, they at least deserve an opportunity to show they can do more.
If Matthews only can play as well as he’s done in the last three seasons, then he could help the team against the run as an inside linebacker, but would struggle to play as well as others on the roster at outside linebacker. If Matthews can play as well as he did in 2012, where he was the fifth-highest-graded 3-4 outside linebacker against the run, then he would be the Packers' top 3-4 outside linebacker against the run once again.
In the Packers' dime defense in 2015, Matthews moved from inside linebacker to pass-rusher, so the dime defense won’t change in 2016, and his move back to outside linebacker only impacts the Packers' base and nickel defense. Because teams run more against the base and nickel defense than against dime, how the position change impacts the run should be a high priority.
Impact on coverage
Last season, Matthews recorded a better coverage grade (70.9) than both of the current projected ILB starters, Barrington and Ryan. In 2015, he posted a 0.89 yards per coverage snap mark, 12th-best for inside linebackers with at least 300 snaps in coverage. Matthews is a better pass-rusher than he is coverage man, but he’s still better at coverage than Green Bay's other linebackers, who will play in base and nickel.
The other way Green Bay could improve their coverage in base and nickel is by using dime linebacker Joe Thomas on earlier downs. He would help the team in coverage, but earned a 46.0 grade against the run last season, which would hurt the Packers' run defense.
Impact on pass-rush
While both the Packers' run defense and coverage in the base and nickel defenses are hurt by Matthews' move back to outside linebacker, the change should slightly help their pass-rush. Peppers and Matthews are Green Bay’s top two edge rushers. However, the gap between Matthews and others lower than him on the outside linebacker depth chart hasn’t been that large.
Jones hasn’t had much experience at 3-4 outside linebacker, but when he’s been there, he’s graded nearly as well as Matthews on a per-play basis when Matthews was outside. Since 2013 in the base and nickel on the outside, Matthews has gotten pressure on 10.2 percent of passing snaps played. Elliott (backup) and Perry haven’t been far behind, at 9.2 percent and 8.1 percent, respectively. The Packers also drafted Kyler Fackrell in the third round of the draft. His 15.7 pass-rushing productivity was fifth-best for FBS 3-4 outside linebackers last season.
The edge the Packers' pass-rush gains by having Matthews as an edge rusher isn’t as strong because they also lose Matthews, the zone-blitzing ILB, as a result. In 208 pass-rushes from the Packers' base or nickel defense as an inside linebacker, Matthews recorded seven sacks, nine hits, and 21 hurries. Without Matthews at inside linebacker, Green Bay won’t try blitzing as much and lose out on some of those successful plays.
“Old Matthews” versus “New Matthews”
If Green Bay gets the Matthews of these past few years, the ILB version of Matthews is close to as good as the OLB version, and thanks to their depth at OLB, they still need ILB help more. If Matthews only plays that well, then the move won’t help the Packers much, if at all, by changing roles.
The biggest way to make the move back to outside linebacker a success is if he returns to his 2009–2012 form. As mentioned before, Matthews was once a top 3-4 outside linebacker against the run, and a 2009–2012 version of Matthews could help the pass-rush even more. In each of those years, he was among the top six 3-4 outside linebackers in pass-rushing productivity. If he can be that productive as a pass-rusher, then the gap between him and other outside linebackers is so much higher, and the move becomes an obvious positive. At the age of 30, though, it’s unlikely that Matthews can return to that level—but there's always a chance.