No other Green Bay Packers defensive player can have as much of an effect on outcomes as outside linebacker Clay Matthews can.
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews is the Packers' best defensive player and has had opposing offenses gameplanning to stop him for years.
Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Sports
By Paul Imig
Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers' success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find the entire list here.
NOTE: This is not a list of the team's 25 best players, but rather it's a list of which players mean the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player's position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
In a similar way to how some Green Bay Packers fans associate "drops" with "Jermichael Finley" (despite an 8.6 percent drop rate the past two seasons that had him around the league average), the first talking point mentioned by many fans now with Clay Matthews is "injuries." No, Matthews does not have the durability of A.J. Hawk or Julius Peppers. And yes, Green Bay would boast a better defense if Matthews was always able to stay on the field. But Matthews has played in 77 of a possible 89 games in his NFL career (86.5 percent) and has never missed more than five games in any one season. Though Matthews has had multiple hamstring injuries and has broken the same thumb twice, it's not like he's a player who misses full -- or even half -- seasons. The point being that reality is sometimes different than perception, and it's inaccurate to paint Matthews' "injury-prone" ways like it's something that keeps him off the field as much as he's able to stay on it.
Matthews is No. 3 on this list because he remains one of the NFL's elite pass-rushers. The difference between him playing 11 healthy games (like he did last season) and 16 healthy games would certainly have an impact in the win-loss column. Matthews is the Packers' best defensive player and has had opposing offenses gameplanning to stop him for years. If Matthews has a dominant 2014 season, it makes the rest of the team better. No other Green Bay defensive player can have as much of an effect on outcomes as Matthews can.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2014
Injuries or not, players of Matthews' caliber don't come around very often. He's averaged 10 sacks per season in his career and has three years with double-digit sacks. The last Packers player to have a double-digit sack year other than Matthews was Aaron Kampman in 2007. That's how wide the gap is in pass-rushing productivity between Matthews and every other Packer of the past six seasons.
Matthews has often faced double- (and sometimes even triple-) teams, so his statistics can be underwhelming despite having a significant influence on a game. However, pass-rushers like Matthews are ultimately judged on sacks, and with that being the case, he'll need to finish with at least 10. He had 13 sacks in 2012 and 13.5 sacks in 2010, and if he has a healthy season, those totals should be within reach of surpassing. But the most realistic expectation is Matthews playing 14 games (which would be in line with his career average percentage) and recording 10 sacks (his career average). If he adds in a few forced fumbles (his career-high is three, both in 2013 and 2011) and a good amount of tackles for loss on running plays, Matthews will have played up to reasonable expectations.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?
For the first time in Matthews' career, he'll have a proven pass-rusher opposite him. The Packers signed Julius Peppers this offseason partially for that reason. Peppers is a highly respected veteran player that many opposing teams will feel they have to gameplan for -- or at least pay a bit of extra attention to. Even having one less set of eyes on Matthews for a few plays each game could make a difference. Those eyes could all shift back towards Matthews by the midway point of the season if he's producing and Peppers starts playing like an actual 34-year-old pass-rusher, but at least early on, that threat should help Green Bay tremendously.
Mike Neal could be an important factor opposite Matthews, as well. The Packers re-signed Neal to a two-year, $8 million contract this offseason hoping that he will have a positive follow-up to his impressive 2013 season that included a career-high 5.0 sacks.
Nick Perry was Plan A for Green Bay two years ago as the outside linebacker who would take pressure off of Matthews, but that hasn't worked out very well. Perry has been effective at times, but injuries have plagued him throughout his first two seasons. Now, Perry will have to fight for playing time as he competes for snaps with Peppers and Neal.