Packers’ Matthews seeking bounce-back year

This is the seventh in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.

July 10: Quarterbacks
July 11: Running backs
July 12: Wide receivers
July 13: Tight ends
July 16: Offensive linemen
July 17: Defensive linemen
July 18: Linebackers
July 19: Safeties
July 20: Cornerbacks
July 23: Specialists
July 24: Coaches
July 25: 5 things to accomplish in camp
July 26: Fans’ guide to camp

TODAY’S POSITION: LINEBACKERS

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8

Projected starters: ILB A.J. Hawk (7th season), ILB Desmond Bishop (6th season), OLB Clay Matthews (4th season), OLB Nick Perry (1st season)

Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *ILB Robert Francois, LB Brad Jones, LB Jamari Lattimore, *ILB Terrell Manning, *OLB Dezman Moses, *ILB D.J. Smith, LB Vic So’oto, *OLB Erik Walden, OLB Frank Zombo

The breakdown: There is little debate that Matthews is still one of the NFL’s elite pass-rushing outside linebackers, but his statistics did not back that up in 2011. After 10 sacks as a rookie and 13.5 sacks during the Packers’ Super-Bowl-winning season, Matthews finished with only 6.0 sacks last season. Some of that decline has to fall on Matthews, but not the majority of it. With Cullen Jenkins being allowed to leave Green Bay as a free agent prior to the 2011 season, Matthews was the Packers’ sole threat to get to the quarterback. Therefore, opposing offenses game-planned around stopping Matthews. The idea was simple: Force Walden or defensive end Jarius Wynn to beat them, not Matthews. Though Green Bay was still only defeated twice all season, it certainly wasn’t due to a strong pass rush from the Packers, finishing 27th as a team in sacks in the NFL.

Matthews just turned 26 years old and, if he can stay healthy, should far surpass his six-sack total from last season. But he’ll need help and pressure coming from other directions. A big push up front in the middle from defensive linemen B.J. Raji and Jerel Worthy will be one part of it, but there needs to be others.

That means that Perry, the team’s first-round pick, will need to make a major impact right away. There was some concern — including from Perry, himself — that he could play outside linebacker in the NFL in a 3-4 scheme, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers appears to have immediately plugged Perry into a starting role. It didn’t take long for Matthews to begin mentoring Perry during offseason practices, and much of Green Bay’s defensive problems from last season can be solved if the two former USC Trojans become a dominant duo. Perry’s 272-pound frame is 20 pounds heavier than the typical NFL pass-rushing outside linebacker, but the Packers have faith that his athleticism will allow for a smooth transition.

Bishop and Hawk are back in their roles as Green Bay’s starting inside linebackers. Bishop appeared to be on his way to his first career Pro Bowl appearance after being ranked in the top 5 in the league in tackles midway through the season. However, a late-season injury and three missed games cost him that opportunity.

Hawk, according to Capers, will not be replaced as the starter by Smith, the second-year up-and-comer. Hawk is the on-field signal caller of the defense and the Packers believe in what the 2006 No. 5 overall pick can do.

Zombo, after a 2011 season filled with injuries and missing the 2012 offseason practices, could be in serious danger of being cut. Moses took snaps with the first-team defense during mini-camp when Matthews was sitting out, an early indication that Moses could make the active roster as a rookie undrafted free agent signing. Manning was a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft and should have a very good chance of making the roster, which could be trouble for 2011 preseason sensation, So’oto.

Best position battle: There are two intriguing training camp competitions at linebacker. Though there has been no sign of Smith taking the starting job from Hawk, Capers likely wouldn’t be able to look the other way if Smith is the far superior player in camp. Smith told FOXSportsWisconsin.com that he is technically only Bishop’s backup at inside linebacker, explaining that the difference between the two positions is relatively complex. But after a very poor defensive season for the Packers in 2011, Capers will have to get his best players on the field to start games. If that means Smith, they’ll make it work.

The other battle could possibly be between Perry and Walden. That starting job job will be Perry’s heading into Day 1 of camp, with the team wanting to give their first-round pick every opportunity to show his talents. Walden had his chance in 2011 and was eventually replaced as a starter late in the season, but he could potentially make a push to regain his spot. If Perry performs well in camp and preseason, he’s the starter. If his transition to outside linebacker is still a major work-in-progress by early September, Walden could find himself in position to take over and let the rookie slowly ease his way in.

Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Packers; 3. Vikings; 4. Lions. Chicago’s Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are likely past their prime, at age 34 and 31, respectively, but they’re still two of the division’s best impact linebackers. Green Bay clearly struggled defensively last season, but Matthews is the best linebacker in the NFC North and is a much bigger playmaker than what he was able to show in 2011. Minnesota’s Chad Greenway is a very good player without the impact-play statistics to prove it, while Erin Henderson showed improvement last season. Detroit’s Stephen Tulloch had the best season of his career in 2011, his first with the Lions, with three sacks, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions. But the Lions have very little else in their linebacker group.

Perry says: “I know I’ve got to make the transition (to outside linebacker). Whatever I can do to help the team, that’s what I’m here for. Weight isn’t really a concern. Obviously, I have great athleticism and I guess they want to use that. Right now, I know that we need help, obviously, on defense. Obviously they see something in me that I maybe can help them with.”