Clay Matthews has the same goals going into every offseason, but this year the Packers linebacker wanted to be even more proactive in his approach to rehab and recovery.
“I stay in a bubble and wrap my hands up,” smiled Matthews on the first day of training camp on Thursday.
Of course, the six-time Pro Bowler was speaking in a joking manner when asked about his offseason after shoulder and hamstring injuries hampered him last year.
Yet, there is some truth in the Matthews’ words. Now entering his ninth NFL season, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound linebacker tackled his workouts with the big picture in mind.
Matthews started last season on a tear in his return to outside linebacker. Three sacks in his first three games were his most since registering six in the first two contests of 2012.
Unfortunately, a lingering hamstring issue cost him four games early in the season. Once that healed, Matthews then sustained a sprained shoulder on a blind-side block in the Packers’ 27-13 win over Philadelphia.
While Matthews didn’t miss any additional games, he was limited down the stretch in playing only 476 of a possible 1,029 defensive snaps (46.3 percent).
Knowing how important both he and fellow starter Nick Perry will be to the defense’s plans in 2017, Matthews focused on conditioning and endurance back home in California.
“Our position is pretty volatile and unfortunately we’ve had a few injuries throughout our careers,” Matthews said. “(Nick and I) both feel really good and comfortable with where we’re at, and where we came in in camp, and our overall health right now. They’re counting on us to get after the quarterback.”
The Packers will lean on both veterans to carry the load at outside linebacker after the departure of Julius Peppers and Datone Jones, who combined for more than 1,100 snaps in 2016.
At the same time, this is the scenario the Packers always envisioned after taking Perry in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. They always hoped to feature Matthews and Perry, but injury and circumstance often dictated otherwise.
A year ago, Perry parlayed the first full offseason program of his career into his best NFL season. With a career-high 11½ sacks in 14 regular-season games, the 6-foot-3, 265-pound linebacker emerged as one of the league’s top young rushers.
Now without Peppers – who led Green Bay with 25 sacks over the past three seasons – Perry and Matthews understand more will be asked of them in both meetings and on the field.
“We have to give more,” Perry said. “We lost a big one (in Peppers). It’s just a matter of we have to step up big. We have to get back on track to doing what we do best as a unit, as partners. This year, moving forward, we’re really stepping into the year being on all (same) pages right now.”
What the Packers may lack in proven depth at outside linebacker they make up for in potential with 2016 third-round pick Kyler Fackrell, Jayrone Elliott and rookie fourth-round pick Vince Biegel leading the charge.
Fackrell packed roughly 10 pounds onto his 6-foot-5 frame this offseason, while Elliott looks to be more consistent after showing flashes of his ability over the past three seasons.
Biegel is still waiting to get back on the field following foot surgery shortly after May’s rookie orientation. He was one of two players placed on the physically unable to perform list before Thursday’s opening practice.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy told reporters Thursday he expects Biegel back in a couple of weeks. While the rookie dealt with a similar injury during his senior year at Wisconsin, Biegel doesn’t expect it to be a long-term issue.
“We wanted to get it done the right way,” Biegel said. “That’s what we did, and it feels great. I’m already ahead of schedule … so (I need to) be patient and make sure that things are fully healed before I step on the field.”
Until then, Biegel is taking mental reps in meetings and trying to gain as much insight from Matthews and Perry as possible.
For Perry – who credits his time with Peppers to helping hasten his development – it’s an interesting position to be in and yet a role he freely accepts after signing a new contract in March.
For Matthews, he’s prepared to put his best foot forward and place last season’s injuries behind him. With the shoulder adequately healed, he’s ready for whatever awaits him in 2017.
“Our playing time is going to be up there as far as how it was early in my career as I’m sure with Nick’s, as well,” Matthews said. “We’re looking forward to being the guys we’ve been called upon, especially Nick after taking a big step last year. So we expect big things this year.”
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