Nate Palmer wasn’t fooling himself. After taking only one predraft visit — with the Green Bay Packers — the Illinois State defensive lineman had minimal expectations for the 2013 NFL draft.
That one meeting, however, turned out to be all that mattered.
Coming off a senior year with the Redbirds in which he registered 71 tackles (15 for a loss) with 71/2 sacks, the 6-foot-21/8, 248-pound Palmer received a pleasant surprise when the Packers nabbed him with their sixth-round selection (No. 193) a little more than a week ago.
Palmer said the visit with the Packers went well, but it’s often been general manager Ted Thompson’s practice to take looks at potential undrafted free agents leading up to the draft rather than bringing in more highly regarded prospects.
With Palmer, the Packers found a guy they couldn’t pass up.
“No, honestly I wasn’t,” said Palmer on whether he was expecting to get drafted. “I was just watching the draft as a fan. And I was just relaxing and looking to see if any of my friends were getting drafted.
“When I got the call, I saw the Wisconsin area code and when they said who they were, words couldn’t even come out of my mouth.”
In Green Bay, Palmer will move to outside linebacker in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense. On paper, he seems to fit the Packers’ prototype of an outside pass rusher hovering around the 250-pound mark.
Since moving to a 3-4 defense in 2009, most of the attention has gone to four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, but the team has been quietly productive at molding several undersized small-school defensive linemen into contributors, such as Middle Tennessee State’s Jamari Lattimore and Tulane’s Dezman Moses.
Much like Moses, who spent two years at Iowa before transferring to Tulane, Palmer started his collegiate career in the Big Ten at Illinois before transferring after his redshirt sophomore season.
On the field, Palmer didn’t see much action in his 15 games for the Fighting Illini and was involved in a nasty accident off of it before his sophomore year. He broke a foot when he was knocked from the scooter he was driving by another driver, sidelining him for six weeks.
At Illinois State, Palmer received a fresh slate and feasted on NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision competition to the tune of 117 tackles (251/2 for a loss) with 17 sacks during his two years there.
It was enough to draw Thompson’s attention.
“He’s got good length,” Thompson said. “A very nice young man, but he’s good prototype size and length and that sort of thing. He’ll look the part. Good athlete.”
Palmer enters a wide-open competition for reserve outside linebacker spots behind Matthews and 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry, who’s recovering from wrist surgery that ended his 2012 season.
At the start of free agency, Perry’s predecessor, Erik Walden, left for Indianapolis and a four-year, $16-million contract while the Packers decided to move on without oft-injured linebacker Frank Zombo.
Their departures left Moses and practice-squad linebacker Micah Johnson as the only other outside representatives from last year’s team with Brad Jones and Lattimore now lining up at inside linebacker.
The Packers brought in another candidate to compete for the job after the draft in Eastern Michigan defensive lineman Andy Mulumba (6-3, 260), a native of Montreal, Quebec, who was the second overall selection by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Monday’s Canadian Football League draft.
Although Palmer grew up as a Chicago Bears fan, he always watched Matthews in Green Bay and appreciated his game. Now, he has the opportunity to shadow him.
“He’s so unpredictable when it comes to the pass rush,” Palmer said. “He’ll start off with one move and by the end of the play, he got a sack after four or five moves. He kind of gives me an idea of what it’d be like to play there.”
Palmer won’t be making the move to Green Bay alone — he’ll be joined by former Illinois State quarterback Matt Brown and safety Ben Erickson, a native of Greendale, Wis.
The trio helped guide the Cardinals to a 9-4 record this past season and into the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2006. They advanced to the quarterfinals before falling to Eastern Washington 51-35.
There’s a noticeable difference in the level of difficulty jumping from the Missouri Valley Conference to the NFL, but Palmer isn’t deterred. In Green Bay, he’s ready to adjust to whatever role awaits him, starting with this weekend’s rookie orientation camp.
“I still have a lot to learn because defensive end is my primary position,” Palmer said. “But I feel like some of the things that I have learned will help me learn, help me adapt, help me get quicker. I know it’s going to be a learning curve, but I’m just ready to get to work.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.