Starters (B): Nick Perry finally played like a No. 1 pick in 2016 after four mostly pedestrian seasons while Clay Matthews continued to battle injuries and Father Time. That’s been the story at this position since the team switched to the 3-4 in 2009 – one really good player and one really average player. The defense needs the 31-year-old Matthews to turn back the clock in 2017. Either that or general manager Ted Thompson needs to find a replacement in the draft.
Depth (D-): Say what you will about Julius Peppers and Datone Jones, but the former had 7.5 sacks and the latter led the defense with 14 knockdowns. That production won’t be easy to replace. Kyler Fackrell, who saw limited action after being picked in the third round a year ago, will be counted on to fill a much larger role in 2017. And while the 25-year-old will probably never be a big-time pass rusher due to a lack of explosiveness, he does have a chance to be a solid all-around player. Whether that’ll happen by Labor Day remains to be seen. Thompson outbid teams to retain Jayrone Elliott, a fixture on special teams player who looks like no better than a No. 4 or 5 outside linebacker. Former undrafted free agent Reggie Gilbert will also return. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad after flashing at times during training camp.
Player to watch: As expected, Fackrell lacked the strength to compete as a rookie. He was manhandled in the run game, and aside from a pair of sacks early in the season, he wasn’t much of a threat as a pass rusher. But there is definitely reason for optimism. Fackrell is a good athlete and a tireless worker who won’t let himself fail. I compared him to a better version of former Packer Brandon Chillar after he was drafted last spring. That might not thrill fans, but the coaching staff would probably be very happy if that proved to be the case in 2017.
*Level of need: Even though Perry and Matthews will earn a combined $25M in 2017, outside linebacker is still one of the biggest areas of concern heading into the draft. The Packers simply can’t count on Matthews staying healthy and/or Fackrell making that always hoped for jump from year 1. It would be an absolute shock if an outside linebacker wasn’t selected in either the first or second round.