INDIANAPOLIS––Two years ago at this time while at the NFL Combine, Nick Perry was professing his desire to play defensive end in a three-point stance.
"I prefer 4-3," said Perry in February of 2012. "I like to keep my hand in the dirt, but as long as I’m rushing and getting to quarterback I’m fine whatever it is."
Fast forward to 2014 and we know Perry got his wish to rush the passer. But as for playing defensive end and keeping his hand in the turf, those days are in the rearview mirror as an outside linebacker in Dom Capers' 3-4 defensive system.
On Thursday at the Combine, Perry's athletic ability and capacity to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks as a defensive end came full circle when Stanford offensive lineman Cameron Fleming called Perry the best player he's ever played against in his career, harkening back to his days at USC.
"He kind of had that combination of size and speed and the pass rush," Fleming said of Perry. "You usually get somebody who's big and wants to bull rush you, or somebody who's fast that wants to get around the edge. He had both, and he was able to do it with his hand in the ground, which is always impressive to me."
Through his first two years in the NFL, Perry has shown flashes of that potential to play with both power and speed, but hasn't put it together on a consistent basis.
With six career sacks in 17 career games, some of Perry's lack of production has to do with injuries rather than a lack of skill. After all, he only played in six games his rookie season before landing on injured reserve with a broken wrist.
Then in 2013, Perry appeared to be on the verge of a breakout, combining for three sacks and two forced fumbles in Weeks 5 and 6 of the season alone. It was later in that Week 6 game against the Baltimore Ravens that Perry broke a bone in his foot and his effectiveness the rest of the season was mitigated.
Regardless of the role injuries have played in Perry's performance, it's worth re-visiting if he'd be served as a traditional defensive end.
When Kevin Greene stepped down at the end of the season and the Packers didn't specifically hire an outside linebackers coach to replace him (instead giving Winston Moss the title of linebackers coach, both inside and outside), some observers wondered whether the Packers defense would be in for a change in scheme during the offseason.
Based on the comments from head coach Mike McCarthy earlier this month, there may be some tweaks––a desire to be more versatile––but there doesn't appear to be any wholesale changes happening in Capers' system.
For now, Perry is still an outside linebacker. And maybe with a clean bill of health, he'll be able to live up to the expectations as a former first round draft choice. Competition for playing time may be lessened as well, depending upon what happens to Mike Neal in free agency.
There's also growing evidence that Perry should play on the right side of the defense, where he seems to have more success. There's a comfort level for Perry on the right side, being where he played the majority of his college career.
Should any change take place, it would require moving Clay Matthews from the right side to the left. And considering Matthews seems to be in beastmode wherever he lines up, shifting sides shouldn't be an issue. The Packers won a Super Bowl with Matthews playing left outside linebacker in 2010.
Whatever happens, it's hard to deny the conviction Perry spoke with just two short years ago.
"Some people have a better edge getting off the ball with their hand in the dirt," said Perry two years ago. "I’ve been playing it a long time now, and I have experience in that. Being put further away from what you’re used to doing makes you a little uneasy."
Perry may never be the most comfortable dropping into coverage and playing in space. But it's possible Fleming has a point.
On the other hand, it's similarly possible Perry just needs to stay healthy and switch the right side of the defense. Arguments can be made either way. There's no magic bullet, and ultimately, the buck ends with Perry to be effective no matter how he's utilized.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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