Linebacker corps counting on Perry to make transition

Jul. 19, 2012

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Green Bay Packers position analysis: Linebackers: Mike and Pete talk about the Packers' linebacker corps heading into training camp.
Green Bay Packers rookie Nick Perry, left, is expected to complement fellow outside linebacker Clay Matthews on the pass rush. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette

Linebacker roster

Player | Pos. | Ht.| Wt. | Yr.
Desmond Bishop | ILB | 6-2 | 238 | 6
Robert Francois | ILB | 6-2 | 255 | 3
A.J. Hawk | ILB | 6-1 | 247 | 7
Brad Jones | ILB/OLB | 6-3 | 242 | 4
Jamari Lattimore | ILB/OLB | 6-2 | 230 | 2
Terrell Manning | ILB | 6-2 | 237 | R
Clay Matthews | OLB | 6-3 | 255 | 4
Dezman Moses | OLB | 6-2 | 249 | R
Nick Perry | OLB | 6-3 | 265 | R
D.J. Smith | ILB | 5-11 | 239 | 2
Vic So’oto | OLB | 6-3 | 263 | 2
Erik Walden | OLB | 6-2 | 250 | 5
Frank Zombo | OLB | 6-3 | 254 | 3

Packers by Position series

Wednesday: Defensive line
Today: Linebacker
Friday: Defensive back
Saturday: Offensive line
Sunday: Quarterback
Monday: Running back
Tuesday: Receiver/tight end
Wednesday: Special teams


Going into last April’s NFL draft, there wasn’t much dispute that Nick Perry had an unusual combination of size and straight-line explosiveness.

But not everyone was sold on whether he could make the move from college defensive end, where he played primarily with his hand on the ground, to a standup outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme such as the Green Bay Packers’.

The Packers’ scouting and coaching staffs projected that their first-round draft pick can make the transition, and there’s plenty riding on their call. Perry’s ability to rush the passer from a standing position and handle the coverage responsibilities that go with his new position will go a long way toward determining whether the Packers have substantially upgraded a defense that finished last season No. 32 in the NFL in yards allowed, No. 19 in points allowed and No. 32 in sacks percentage.

Perry, who’s especially thick in the shoulders and haunches, didn’t look anywhere near as smooth in coverage in non-padded offseason practices as Clay Matthews did as a rookie in 2009. Matthews, unlike Perry, played essentially as a standup 3-4 outside linebacker at USC.

“(Perry) is a good athlete, and he’s doing some stuff he’s never done before,” Capers said near the end of the Packers’ offseason practices last month. “You just have to be patient, and I think we’ll see him make progress in those areas. I’ve certainly had a number of guys come in and they haven’t been a dropper, they’ve been a rusher, but you see the athletic ability it takes to do that.”

By selecting Perry in the first round of this year’s draft (No. 28 overall), the Packers finally spent major resources on the critical outside linebacker position opposite Matthews, who also was a first-round pick. In defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ first three seasons running his 3-4 scheme in Green Bay, the Packers bookended Matthews with a miscast 4-3 defensive end (Aaron Kampman in 2009), a seventh-round draft pick (Brad Jones in ‘09 and a little last season), a street free agent (Erik Walden in ‘10 and ‘11) and an undrafted signee (Frank Zombo in ‘10 and ‘11).

That’s not to say fringe-type prospects can’t pan out at the position — Pittsburgh’s James Harrison became an elite outside linebacker a few years after entering the league as an undrafted rookie. But the Steelers, who run the same version of the 3-4 as Capers, have built one of the NFL’s best defenses around having two premier outside linebackers, Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, a second-round draft pick in 2007 who this offseason signed a five-year contract extension worth a little more than $10 million a season.

The Packers are trying to field a comparably talented outside-linebacker duo, though Woodley had an advantage over Perry entering the NFL because he played as a standup linebacker at Michigan.

Perry, who was 271 pounds at the scouting combine and is listed at 265 on the Packers’ roster, is bigger than most 3-4 outside linebackers, and for that reason, he’s playing left outside linebacker, which is more run-stopping oriented than the right side. Perry is 10 to 15 pounds heavier than Matthews, who is switching back to the right side after playing on the left the last two seasons.

Perry’s straight-line speed is excellent for a player his size — at the NFL scouting combine he ran the 40 in 4.59 seconds, including a 10-yard split of 1.53 seconds, which was better than Bruce Irvin, who generally was regarded as the most explosive pass rusher in the draft. Perry also had an excellent 38½-inch vertical jump.

But Perry’s success with the Packers will depend in large part on how well he can rush from a standing position after beginning most plays with his hand on the ground in college, and change direction in the open field in coverage. His physical testing in those areas wasn’t as impressive as his straight-line scores — his 4.66-second short shuttle and 7.25-second three-cone drill were in the average range for his position.

Perry’s competence in those new skills will determine how flexible and unpredictable Capers can be with his play calls. If Perry adapts well, he could take better advantage than his predecessors of the extra attention offenses give to Matthews, and Matthews likely would get more favorable pass-rushing matchups on at least a few snaps a game.

“(Perry) is a rookie, so we’re going to have to see how fast (he adapts),” Capers said. “I think he’s a guy that will get better with the more reps he gets, and the more comfortable he gets you’ll see his play speed pick up. There’s a lot of things to think about as opposed to if you’ve been down and you only have to think about one thing. But now if you have to drop or rush or play blocks, all that stuff. But I like his physical ability, I think he’s got some good physical tools.”

It’s all but a given Perry will be the starter if healthy, though the Packers also signed an intriguing undrafted rookie at outside linebacker, Dezman Moses of Tulane, who could have a future in the league.

Among the team’s other outside linebackers, Zombo had another major setback this offseason, a hamstring injury that kept him from taking part in any practices. Walden is fighting for a backup spot after not playing as well in 2011 as he did down the stretch in 2010. And second-year pro Vic So’oto, who won a roster spot as an undrafted rookie last year with a strong push as a rusher late in camp, will try to show that his coverage skills have improved enough to make the final roster again.

At inside linebacker, second-year pro D.J. Smith could be ready to push A.J. Hawk (28 years old) for the starting job opposite Desmond Bishop.

Hawk has been durable (two missed games in six NFL seasons) and assignment reliable but is coming off a season in which he made probably the fewest plays in his career (1½ sacks, no turnover plays). Smith, a sixth-round pick last year, showed enough as a rookie to suggest he should graduate to playing time in some packages and perhaps even start if he makes a big enough jump.

“When we asked (Smith) to play last year he did a nice job, and he’s really had a good offseason,” Capers said. “Very smart, very instinctive player. I think he can play a number of different roles. I think he’s physical enough to play on first and second down, and I think he can have a role on third down. He’s just an accountable guy from what I’ve seen.”

The Packers also drafted an outside linebacker, Terrell Manning of North Carolina State, in the fifth round, and moved two outside linebackers inside, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore.

Thompson traded a sixth-round pick and two seventh-rounders to take Manning in the fifth round, and the Packers especially liked Manning’s ability as a blitzer. With a good camp he could work his way into some playing time in specific passing-down packages.

Jones and Lattimore have been primarily special teamers, and if they play well enough inside could make the team as multi-position backups.

“That really increases your value,” Capers said. “The more things you can do. Always with injuries you’re deciding how many linebackers you go with (on the 46-man game-day roster) as opposed to defensive linemen, how much can they do? Special teams, all those things factor in." and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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