When the Packers traded up in the 2009 NFL Draft, it marked just the second time in general manager Ted Thompson’s tenure that they had done so. The trade involved moving back into the first round in exchange for the Packers’ only second round pick (41st overall) and both third round picks (73 and 83). The Packers also received the Patriots’ fifth round pick (162). There was a buzz over who the Packers had traded up for, with some believing it to be Florida State outside linebacker Everette Brown or potentially Rey Maualuga.
It turned out that, in typical Ted Thompson fashion, the Packers went with the wild card pick by selecting Clay Matthews III, an outside linebacker from Southern California. Weighing 240 pounds and standing six feet-three inches tall, Matthews was the perfect fit for the Packers’ new 3-4 scheme under Dom Capers.
One rumor said that Thompson and Capers liked Matthews enough that they considered taking him with the ninth overall pick, instead opting to go with Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji. When the Packers moved back into the first round, it was an easy decision for management in taking Matthews.
Matthews’ path to the NFL was anything but easy and even he would admit that four years ago, he wouldn’t have expected to hear his name called on draft day, let alone the first round. In high school, Matthews did not start on his high school team despite his own father being the defensive coordinator.
His father also happened to be Clay Matthews, former linebacker for the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons wh started 278 straight games and was elected to four pro bowls. Bruce Matthews, considered one of the best offensive linemen of all time, is Matthews III’s uncle. Even Matthew III’s grandfather, Clay Matthews Sr., played four years for the San Francisco 49ers.
Instead of taking offers from community colleges or small division one schools, Matthews opted to walk on for the same team that his father and uncle played for: Southern California. Matthews dedicated himself for the next two years and was awarded a scholarship for his junior year in 2007. Despite seeing just limited time on defense and work on special teams his first three season, Matthews entered the starting lineup in 2008 and recorded 54 tackles, four sacks, and a forced fumble.
He won the Special Teams Player of the Year Award the last three seasons he was at Southern California, making him the only Trojan to ever win three times. His hard work, tenacity, and commitment to football made him the prime candidate to become a Packer in 2009. His 4.58 forty time and 35-inch vertical at the NFL Combine didn’t hurt, either.
Matthews reported to camp on time and new defensive coordinator Dom Capers fell in love with his athleticism and smarts. Despite coming from an NFL-style team in USC, Matthews was still considered a bit of a project entering the season. He began the year backing up Brady Poppinga at the right outside linebacker position, but as of late the reps have began to even out 50-50.
Four games into the regular season, Matthews has not racked up the stats to prove he is making improvements and is succeeding, but his presence on the field has been felt. Already, he is getting push on the line and is showing enough speed to rush on the outside. He recorded his first sack against the Bengals and stripped Adrian Peterson last Monday night and ran 40 yards for his first career touchdown.
It is obvious the Packers drafted Matthews to become their future on the outside. When looking at the most successful 3-4 defenses in the league, players like James Harrison of the Steelers and Terrell Suggs of the Ravens are so important in applying pressure and also making plays in the secondary. While the inside linebackers rack up most of the tackles in the 3-4 defense, the reason for that is because containing the edge and forcing plays back inside is vital. That is the job of the outside linebackers, making Matthews that much more important.
In the Packers’ first overall selection B.J. Raji, as well as Matthews, the Packers believe they have the foundation to a young, up-and-coming defense. Up to this point in the season, Matthews has been the Packers best outside linebacker. The lack of speed shown by A.J. Hawk, Nick Barnett, and Aaron Kampman has been tough to watch, but the athleticism and tenacity Matthews has shown has been a breath of fresh air.
The best part about Matthews is that his career is four games deep right now. As much push as he has made against offensive lines, he has not learned good enough technique to be a double-digit sack player. Right now, his speed and coverage abilities are being used but as he progresses and gains more muscle weight, he will become more of a complete player and starter for a long time.