Depth at outside linebacker was an issue even before Monday’s surprising news that fourth-round draft pick Vince Biegel underwent surgery on his right foot last week. Now it would be downright negligent of general manager Ted Thompson not to sign a veteran before players report to St. Norbert’s College in late July.
Even if Biegel is cleared to return in time for the start of training camp – which is far from a certainty – he’ll be way behind after missing all of the offseason activities. And whenever he does return, he’ll be playing on a right foot that’s now been surgically repaired twice in the past seven months. And even if Biegel manages to get up to speed in a hurry and stay healthy – two very big ifs – there’s still no guarantee he’ll be able to contribute at outside linebacker. As much as fans love the local boy, how many fourth-round picks make impacts as rookies?
The point is, Thompson can’t depend on Biegel in 2017. That’s also true of fellow backup outside linebackers Kyler Fackrell and Jayrone Elliott. The former struggled last year as an undersized rookie and the latter looks like a player who’ll stick in the league more for his ability to cover kicks than for his ability to sack quarterbacks. Does that mean neither Fackrell nor Elliott is capable of stepping up and becoming a key part of the defense this season? Of course not. It just means Thompson would be foolish to count on it.
The lack of proven depth wouldn’t be quite as big a deal at other positions, but it’s a really big deal at outside linebacker. That’s because starters Clay Matthews and Nick Perry aren’t exactly the paradigms of durability. The two missed six games last season, and were forced to leave a number of others early. And considering that Matthews’ hammys are wound tighter than Bob Costas’ face and Perry’s shoulder and hand have seen more needles than a crack addict, it would be unrealistic to expect either to suddenly turn into Lou Gehrig.
Those are the reasons Thompson needs to add a veteran, and fortunately there’s a veteran out there who would be perfect. Despite recording a career-high 11 quarterback sacks for the Colts last season, former Packer Erik Waldon is still unsigned. So why is he on the street in late May? Well, he’s 32 years old, and prior to last season, was never much of a pass rusher (21 sacks in 113 games). Another reason might be the awful rating he received from the folks at Pro Football Focus. That site is read by a lot of front office execs, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if some of the lazier general managers didn’t even bother to consider Walden (by the way, never forget that Pro Football Focus once ranked Brad Jones as a top-12 inside linebacker).
Not willing to simply take the word of Pro Football Focus, I decided to watch every game Walden played last season. What I saw was hardly one of the league’s worst outside linebackers. The former Middle Tennessee State star wasn’t a consistent threat as a pass rusher, but hey, neither was $60 million man Nick Perry. At the end of the day, 11 sacks are 11 sacks. Against the run, Walden was inconsistent. He would set a strong edge on one play and then get pushed around the next. In short, other than turning more hurries into sacks, he looked very much like the guy who started 24 games for the Packers in 2011 and 2012.
Would I want Walden to be a starter? Absolutely not. But at this point, there’s very little downside to bringing him in as a potential backup. He’ll come cheap (max of $2 million for 1 year) and he won’t count against next year’s compensatory picks. And if one or two of the young outside linebackers step up in training camp, he could be released. No harm, no foul. Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf used to sign veterans like this all the time. Thompson rarely has gone this route, but he did bring in 33-year-old guard Jahri Evans last month, so maybe he’s finally coming around to his mentor’s way of thinking – at least a little.