McGinn: Late bloomer Perry defies odds

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – You’d be hard-pressed to find a player for the Green Bay Packers in the last 30 to 35 years who has put together such an unexpectedly dominant first month as Nick Perry.

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry tackles Detroit Lions running back Theo Riddick at Lambeau Field.

Not only is Perry the best player on defense, he probably surpasses offensive linemen T.J. Lang and David Bakhtiari as the Packers’ most valuable player overall after four games.

Even though Perry started ahead of Julius Peppers all summer at left outside linebacker, it was unclear if Peppers would return to primacy once the regular season began. In my annual ranking of the 53 players based on importance to the team, I fretted having Perry too high at No. 19.

As it turns out, he should have been in the top five.

Numbers don’t tell everything about Perry. Tape does that. However, they do underscore just how extraordinary has been his performance.

Perry leads the team in sacks with 4 1/2, already a career high. He leads in knockdowns with three. He leads in hurries with 6 1/2.

Add up the three categories that define pressures and Perry has 14, well ahead of Mike Daniels (eight), Peppers (6 1/2), Datone Jones (5 1/2) and Kyler Fackrell and Clay Matthews, each with five.

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Based on observation, no defender has been more instrumental than Perry for the Packers’ runaway lead atop the NFL in run defense. He has set a rugged edge (see Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson) hemming in ball carriers, manhandled some tight ends at the point of attack and been tough to budge against double teams.

Perry’s three tackles for loss tie him with Daniels for second place on the club behind Jake Ryan, who has five. He is playing either in the backfield or at the line, seldom getting pushed back.

His consistency has been remarkable, both in the run game and the pass game. His least productive rush game was the opener in Jacksonville (two pressures), but on four other occasions he beat his man cleanly only to have Blake Bortles get the ball out almost immediately.

With Peppers slowing down and Matthews, Jones and Jayrone Elliott all having missed at least one game, Perry’s durability has been a godsend for coach Mike McCarthy. He has played all 194 of his snaps (76.4 percent) at outside linebacker, the position where other snap counts are Matthews (119), Fackrell (65), Peppers (54), Jones (42) and Elliott (35).

Who would ever have imagined saluting Perry for his availability?

Everything that the Packers hoped to see and, in truth, probably didn’t think they ever would see is coming to fruition.

General manager Ted Thompson took a gamble on greatness in 2012, using the 28th choice of the first round on Perry. The physical attributes were there in abundance (4.58 speed at 271 pounds, 38 1/2-inch vertical jump, 35 reps on the bench press), but the Packers were asking Perry to stand up in a 3-4 after having played in a three-point stance at Southern Cal.

“There’s going to be some patience involved here,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on the eve of Perry’s first training camp. “You aren’t expecting him to go out and be Superman right off the bat.”

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Perry played confused as a rookie, almost as though he wasn’t totally committed to the conversion. He was playing less than Erik Walden in 2012 before the first of his many injuries, a torn wrist ligament, ended that season after six games.

A broken foot forced Perry to miss five more games in 2013, and shoulder injuries sidelined him for the entire offseasons of ’14 and ’15.

Late last December, an NFC North personnel man said of Perry, “Kind of disappointing to me over his career. I could see them letting him walk. Got some power as a rusher but nothing really stands out. He’s got some size against the run and against tight ends but just doesn’t really do a whole lot.”

The Packers might well have been ready to wave Perry good-bye until his performance against Trent Williams of Washington in the wild-card playoffs. He turned the corner three times against the elite left tackle, garnering 1 1/2 sacks and a knockdown. The next week against Arizona he was a bull against the run.

Undoubtedly impressed, the Packers brought Perry back for one year at $5 million ($1.5M guaranteed).

Healthy for a change, Perry said he profited from a full offseason program. He made a smart choice to drop some weight, and is playing now under 260. A friend of Perry’s said he continues to benefit in the third year of the change in position coaches from Kevin Greene to Winston Moss.

Last month, Perry admitted to having a better understanding of the defense now. With his weight down, he looks sleeker and is moving better, not like the player a personnel man once said “looks like he’s encased in cement.”

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Perry was a one-trick pony when it came to rushing the passer. It was all bull rush. This year, his emphasis has been to work on his speed rush so when the tackle anchors to stop power he can win off the corner.

Of Perry’s nine pressures this season in which there was a clear method of attack, all but one were the result of edge rushes predicated on speed.

Over the years many scouts have said they usually know if someone will be a player by the second season, and if not almost always by the third season.

What makes Perry’s ascendancy so exceptional, of course, is the fact this is his fifth season.

After reviewing my approximately 35 years on the beat, only a handful of players fit Perry’s late-blooming profile.

Cornerback Al Harris, who spent his first six seasons elsewhere, earned a starting job for the first time in Green Bay but it wasn’t until his ninth year that he came a premier player.

Another cornerback, Mark Lee, was starting by his second season (1981) but it wasn’t until ’86 that he enjoyed an exceptional year.

Wide receiver Billy Schroeder persevered before beginning a five-year run as a starter for the Packers and Lions in 1999, his sixth season. Wide receiver James Jones factored from 2007-11 but matured and made ’12 his finest.

Defensive end Robert Brown (1986) and center James Campen (’90) fought the blue-collar fight for four years before becoming starters in their fifth seasons.

Tight end Mark Chmura (1995), wide receiver Donald Driver (’02), quarterback Aaron Rodgers (’08) and inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (’10) made the most of it when they moved into the lineup in year four.

Guard Ron Hallstrom (’84), tackle Earl Dotson (’95) and guard T.J. Lang (’11) turned their flagging careers completely around in their third seasons.

Safety Darren Sharper (2000) and defensive end Cullen Jenkins (’06) were marginal starters before their fourth seasons but in each case that was the turning point in their lengthy careers.

Marco Rivera (2000) and Mike Wahle (’02) were adequate starters before becoming Pro Bowl-caliber guards in the fifth year.

This is open to interpretation, of course, and there are a few others that might fit. But the point is that Perry’s climb from mediocrity this late in his career places him in the extreme minority.

Assuming Tyron Smith’s back doesn’t prevent him from lining up for the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at Lambeau Field, Perry will be tested by a premier left tackle who’s probably even better than Trent Williams.

One month doesn’t make a season. We’ll find out just how far Perry can take his sudden rise in status.

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