Tenth in a series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ unrestricted, restricted and exclusive-rights free agents in advance of the start of the 2017 league year and NFL free agency March 9.
GREEN BAY - For years, the Green Bay Packers thought outside linebacker Nick Perry could be a disruptive pass rusher — if only he could stay healthy.
That had been the problem over Perry’s entire career. There was a broken wrist in his rookie season. A broken foot in 2013. Shoulder surgery in 2014. More shoulder problems and broken fingers in 2015.
Crashing into offensive tackles, life on the edge can be painful in the NFL. Through his first four seasons, Perry managed to play in only 46 of the possible 64 games. He made only 15 starts.
Perry’s luck didn’t completely change last fall. He missed two games in December after surgery to insert multiple screws into the metacarpal below his left middle finger. Even after returning, Perry was forced to wear a black, tennis-racket-sized club over his left hand.
It didn’t stop him from producing.
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The Packers’ sacks leader played the first 12 games last season uninterrupted. He returned to post three of his 11 sacks while wearing a club in the season’s final two games. In 2016, Perry finally reached the potential the Packers had seen all along, showing why they spent a first-round pick (No. 28 overall) on him in the 2012 draft.
Perry always brought strength to his position, setting a sturdy edge against the run. Perhaps because of injuries, his pass rushing was slow to develop. Perry’s 11 sacks last season, 8½ more than his previous career high, almost matched the 12½ he had in his first four years.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for me,” Perry said after recording his 10th sack of the season against the Minnesota Vikings on Christmas Eve. “I’m pretty excited about that.”
Perry made good on the one-year, $5 million contract he signed last offseason. And so did the Packers. Instead of paying Perry $7.75 million last season, they saved some salary by declining to pick up the former first-round pick’s fifth-year option.
Now comes the challenge of signing players at premium positions to short-term deals. Perry is scheduled to become a free agent, and he’ll likely cash in on his successful contract year.
The price tag for edge rushers only increases as the salary cap continues to grow. Perry’s market value is projected as five years and $42.7 million, an $8.5 million annual average, according to Spotrac. With the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul, the Cardinals' Chandler Jones and the Chargers' Melvin Ingram receiving franchise tags and ample teams sitting on an abundance of cap space, Perry’s deal could reach $10 million or more.
In terms of annual salary, Perry signed the fifth-highest contract among edge rushers last offseason. His one-year deal — instead of a long-term contract — was the Packers’ way of hedging against Perry’s injury history. After staying healthier than ever before and playing the best football of his career in 2016, Perry will be a safer free-agent target.
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“Nick had some injury issues in his early years,” coach Mike McCarthy told reporters Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine, “but Nick is a hell of a football player. We got to see him not only go through the season, played through another major injury with the hand injury, but it was really the first time that he had a full offseason. So he’s a talent.
“Nick is one of our guys. He’s a powerful man. I have a lot of love for Nick and what he’s gone through. His first couple years, it was frustrating just to watch him go through the injuries. Hopefully, we can get his contract worked out.”
The Packers have a clear need to retain Perry’s services. Not just because he led them in sacks last season, with 3½ more than fellow free agent Julius Peppers. A good defense can’t afford to have uncertainty at edge rusher, and three of the Packers’ top four edge rushers become free agents this spring.
Perry has become the most important of the three. He turns 27 next month, an age that should put him squarely in his prime. Though injuries might catch up to him later in his career, he should have plenty of good football left to play.
That is, if Perry stays healthy going forward. The Packers will have to gauge the possibility of that happening, and tune their free-agency approach accordingly.
Nick Perry, sixth-year outside linebacker
The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.
The snaps: Played 14 games, 12 starts in 2016; 60 games, 28 starts in career.
The stats: Team-high 11 sacks, 35 tackles, 4 batted passes in 2016; 23.5 sacks, 111 tackles, 8 batted passes in career.
2016 salary: $5.05 million.