With Julius Peppers on the roster, Nick Perry and Mike Neal aren't going to be anything near full-time players this season.
But anyone attending practice Thursday could see that the Green Bay Packers still are looking for Neal and Perry to play significant roles in their defense, if they can stay healthy, which has been an issue in their pasts.
Thursday was Perry's first practice since January, and only Neal's second of this training camp. Perry missed the entire offseason and first four practices of camp because of foot and knee injuries that date to last year. Neal missed the first three practices in camp because of an abdominal injury.
Yet there they were on Nitschke Field on Thursday, just back from their layoffs, taking regular turns as the outside linebackers in the No. 2 defense. Starters Clay Matthews and Peppers will get the bulk of the work this season, but there still will be snaps available to Neal and Perry, especially if the team limits the 34-year-old Peppers' workload.
There's also the new elephant position, which Peppers, Perry and Neal can man, and which will offer more playing time for the backup outside linebackers. Thus the Packers' urgency to see what the two former high draft picks — Perry was a first-rounder, Neal a second-rounder — can offer their defense.
"I can do a whole lot," Perry insisted after practice. "There's flashes from the previous years, but I can bring a lot to the table."
Perry's absence was unusually long for a player who didn't have surgery. The more serious issue appears to have been his toe, which he injured last year at Baltimore in October and aggravated a month later at the New York Giants. He returned for the final five regular-season games and playoff loss against San Francisco but was unable to practice all offseason until Thursday, when the Packers finally took him off the PUP list.
"Just rest and training and just getting to where I need to be," Perry said of his long layoff from football.
With five games missed last season, Perry's injuries have sidelined him for 15 of the Packers' 32 games since the team drafted him in 2012 to be the outside pass rusher opposite Matthews.
Perry has shown glimpses of ability but nothing sustained in his first two years. He had two sacks in six games as a rookie and four sacks in 11 games last year, including three sacks in the 1½ games before he injured his toe. But after two seasons, his durability is a major issue.
"We feel like we're doing things to stay in front of (the injury problems)," McCarthy said. "Nick, sometimes players go through injury situations, one then two, sometimes it just takes a little while to get off that cycle. Hopefully he's off that."
Now the Packers will see what Perry and Neal can bring to defensive coordinator Dom Capers' revised scheme, which includes the elephant position McCarthy and Capers began planning for even before signing Peppers in free agency in March.
Their reason for incorporating the elephant into the defense in the first place was to accommodate Perry and Neal, who are oversized outside linebackers in the 3-4 and probably best suited to play end in a 4-3 scheme. The elephant allows them to line up almost anywhere along the defensive front with several outside linebackers on the field at the same time.
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Any of Perry, Neal and Peppers can play the elephant on a given snap, and if two or all three are on the field along with Matthews, the offense won't know who's playing where until they line up. Perry had been learning the position only in the classroom because of his injury.
"It's going to be exciting seeing all of these guys working together," Perry said. "We got Peppers, all of us is healthy. We're ready to roll and I think the new position, it'll help."
Perry's first day of practice was as uneventful as would be expected for a player coming off a long layoff. He didn't do anything of note in his regular rotation in team drills, and in one-on-one pass-rushing drills went 0-for-3 with losses to left tackles David Bakhtiari, Derek Sherrod and Jeremy Vujnovich.
But Neal in his second practice of camp stood out. He looked a little quicker at his new playing weight, which is about 263 pounds, down from the approximate 275 pounds he played at last year in his move to outside linebacker, and from the 295-pound range he was as a defensive lineman before that.
In one team drill Thursday, Neal had what probably would have been a sack of Matt Flynn against first-year tackle Aaron Adams, and in one-on-ones cleanly beat Adams with a speed rush on his first snap and Don Barclay with a club move on another.
"(Neal) definitely is faster, I will say that," defensive lineman Mike Daniels said.