It's official. I like Clay Matthews III. I really like him.
The kid has lived not only up to his billing, but to the exorbitant price paid for the extra first round pick in the draft. He's been all over the field, making sacks, making critical tackles, stripping the ball, and looking like he's having a blast doing it.
All the reason to like him. But I have one important reason why Matthews has my respect.
He's earned his spot. He's a starter and is playing like one.
This hasn't always been the case in the TT/MM regime. When you choose to build through the draft, eschewing free agency, there are a lot of times that young players are given jobs simply be default, and get that "NFL starter" title without necessarily doing much more than being drafted.
I know this is true for a lot of NFL teams, especially first-round picks. Young players are thrown into the mix to fill spots, even though most of us know that a draft class is supposed to be for the future, not the present.
But the Packers went through several years of throwing even mid-round picks into starting roles with very little competition. In 2006, the Packers drafted three mid-round offensive linemen (Colledge, Spitz, and Moll) and essentially gave them to rookie head coach Mike McCarthy as his starters. There was no one of note behind these guys, and so the guard positions were essentially filled without competition.
Even some of our first- and second- round picks have been given starting spots with no competition: Nick Collins, Greg Jennings, Brandon Jackson, and AJ Hawk. And before you play the "Aaron Rodgers sat on the bench for three years" card, do you honestly think he would have sat the bench had Favre retired (for good), even after the 2004 season? You think Rodgers would have watched while Ingle Martin took snaps under center?
Anyway, my point is not to belittle these guys, but to shower not only praise on Matthews, but in how he earned his way into a starting job instead of having it handed to him.
Early in the offseason, the two players trying to earn a spot opposite Aaron Kampman were Brady Poppinga and surprise upstart Jeremy Thompson. Clay was being touted as a "special teams maven" that would likely be the heir apparent for Kampman. Even so, I still worried that TT might be tempted to toss him in there earlier in order to defend the heavy price paid for him.
As preseason rolled around, Jeremy Thompson faded away and Poppinga appeared to be the man competing with Matthews for that spot. In the end, Poppinga got the start on opening day and began a stretch of mediocre performances.
Slowly, Matthews began to get a little more playing time, essentially blurring the line between who was the starter and who was the rotational player. By the time the Packers met the Lions in Week 6, Matthews was named the starter in the base defense. But he didn't just get the job because Poppinga was struggling.
He had been making plays in the first four games, including a key pressure against Jay Cutler in Week 1 that resulted in an interception, a sack of Carson Palmer in Week 2, and several passes defensed. But the big one was the strip of the ball from the best running back in football in Week 4, resulting in a stunned Adrian Peterson and a touchdown return for Matthews.
And since getting that start, Matthews has done everything except slow down.
He earned the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week honors in his first start against the Lions, and then again against Dallas in Week 9 when he forced and recovered two fumbles. In only nine starts, he leads the team with seven sacks. The last time a rookie linebacker led the team in sacks was 1986, when Tim Harris finished with eight.
But the best part of it all is that Matthews didn't get his starting spot based on his draft position or on his rather legendary last name. He earned it and continues to earn it each and every week. He is aware that there are veteran linebackers behind him, like Brandon Chillar and Poppinga, ready to take over in the event he falters, and continues to play at a high level.
After this past week's game against Baltimore, Matthews has been named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week with six tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, and three QB hits. Not the Defensive Rookie of the Week...the NFC PLAYER of the Week. The same award won by Charles Woodson, a veteran Pro Bowler.
Even better, as his play has improved, so has the play of the guys around him. Fellow long-haired first-rounder linebacker AJ Hawk has demonstrated some gains in his playmaking, making an athletic interception against the Ravens and posting 17 tackles over the last two weeks. This from a guy who was essentially off the field for most of the game earlier in the season and heard whispers that he would soon be benched as a draft bust. Nick Barnett has also been better than solid as late, developing into a playmaker in stopping the run game.
That's the definition of a star player...one who makes the players around him better, and Barnett and Hawk have reaped the benefits of playing next to a guy who doesn't need to be compensated for, like Kampman needed before he was hurt. Instead of being a converted defensive end, Matthews has entered the Dom Capers 3-4 scheme on the ground floor, and has immediately put his skills to work within it.
Hawk has long been criticized for having a low ceiling, but Matthews' ceiling hasn't been sighted yet. Is it worth the price paid in the draft to get him? Time will tell, but early results would say that not only was the bevy of picks given up for Matthews worth it, but Ted Thompson may have pulled off the steal of the draft.