Justin Harrell has heard the comments and is more than aware of his public perception.
The Green Bay Packers defensive end knows he’s been called a bust by some, and General Manager Ted Thompson’s biggest mistake by others.
Harrell has even had to calm a few family members down over the issue.
“I got a couple phone calls (of them wanting) to come up here and handle some business,” Harrell said with a laugh. “I told them don’t worry about it. If I can handle it, they can handle it.”
Harrell has handled it as well as could be expected, discussing the issue without venom or bitterness. The former Tennessee Volunteer was drafted with the No. 16 overall pick in 2007 but has played just 13 games in three seasons because of injuries. And this is the National Football League where first-round draft picks are expected to contribute to the cause, and fast.
“He carries with him the first-round tag, which is good on draft day because you get drafted and everybody says ‘Yay’ and you have a big party at your house,” Thompson said. “I think we have to have a certain amount of empathy. If you are trying the best you can and it’s just not working or you kind of keep getting hurt or whatever it is, you haven’t done anything wrong.
“It’s just the expectations are a lot higher. Now with that comes some good things like contracts and things like that, so there is good and bad, but it’s not just a one-way street.”
The injuries began in 2006 when Harrell was still in Knoxville. First was a torn bicep that limited Harrell to three games during his senior season and kept him out of organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. Then there was an ankle that caused him to miss five games his rookie year.
Harrell missed the 2008 offseason workouts because of back surgery. He was placed on the physically unable to perform list and was activated before the eighth game of the year at Tennessee on Nov. 1. A hip injury that developed as an offshoot of the back problems sidelined Harrell for the final three games of 2008.
Then last year early in training camp, Harrell re-aggravated the back injury and missed the entire season.
Entering the fourth year of his career, Harrell knows he’s working on borrowed time as long as he’s in the trainers’ room more often that on the field.
“Four years, you don’t stay around this league too long when you’re not really producing or doing anything on the field,” Harrell said. “I would say it’s a make-or-break camp for me.
“There are people out there pulling for me. I get e-mails and stuff all the time — encouragement and stuff like that. You just try to take it one day at a time and control what you can control.”
Encouragement, however, doesn’t pay the proverbial bills and injuries take a mental toll. Athletes live off the confidence built from dominating others since grade school. Self-doubt can be the first step toward the exit, but Harrell insists that’s never been an issue.
“When you’re hurt, if you get down and frustrated then that’s going to stop you from working and trying to get back,” Harrell said. “If that would have happened, I probably wouldn’t be in the position I am right now still having a shot of being a Green Bay Packer.
“There’s never been a question in my mind whether I can play in this league. I know I can play football. I know why they drafted me. It’s just been the injuries. Once the injuries solve themselves, I knew my skills would speak for themselves.”
Those skills started making noise this week in what is an optimal, and possibly the final, opportunity for Harrell. The year-long suspension to defensive end Johnny Jolly means there will be a contributor on the line without significant experience. Harrell, second-round pick Mike Neal, Jarius Wynn, Anthony Toribio, Ronald Talley and seventh-round pick C.J. Wilson are all looking to crack the rotation behind starters Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett. Harrell’s 13 NFL games played are one more than the other five reserves combined.
Coaches and teammates had raved about Harrell’s performance in camp and Pickett even called him the strongest defensive lineman on the roster. But then the heat knocked Harrell out of two of the last three practices.
“I think he has the physical tools that he can play left end for us,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We need for him to just stay out here and continue to take that step-by-step progress that we need to see out of him for a period of time. And get him a certain amount of snaps in preseason games so he can show us what he can do in those competitive situations.”
With all the uncertainty surrounding Harrell, there’s one thing that is certain — he is on the clock. Harrell’s five-year rookie contract will expire after 2011. If Harrell can’t produce soon, especially with the current opportunity, it is unlikely the Packers will be eager to keep him.
And the discussions about his failed legacy might never stop.
“It can’t be about that,” Harrell said about proving himself to people. “No matter what I do, somebody’s going to have something to say about it. So, you can’t please everybody. This isn’t the first time people have said bad things about me.
“I just try to control what I can control. And go out there and try to do my job.”