Two years ago, the Packers drafted Nick Perry in the first round with the intention of making him a legitimate tandem bookend to Matthews. They thought that they could move Perry, a 270-pound defensive end at USC, to outside linebacker and everything would work out fine.
Instead, they find themselves scratching their heads and still trying to figure out what they have.
Perry finished the 2013 season with 48 tackles, five sacks and three forced fumbles. Still, the talk at the end of the season was more about the games he missed — not only in 2013 but his also his rookie season — due to injuries.
"They've certainly affected his ability," said defensive coordinator Dom Capers in a season-ending session with reporters in January. "A young guy that's making a position transition, you'd like to have him out there a lot more reps. Obviously, the season ended very early his first year. This year, once he got that foot problem, it limited his reps. It's harder for a guy that's playing a position for the first year or two when you can't practice during the week to be able to go out and perform at the level you have to perform on Sunday. Yeah, it's hard to give you a true evaluation because we just haven't had any consistency in terms of the amount of time on the practice field and have that be able to carry over into the game over a period of time."
Of the Packers' 17 games in 2013, Perry played in 12 with just six starts. In 2012, he started five of the first six games before being slowed by knee and wrist injuries, the latter eventually putting him on injured reserve Nov. 7.
When Perry has been on the field, he has shown some disruptive pass rush ability from a two-point stance. His three strip-sacks in 2013 are evidence enough. And who could forget his violent hit on Andrew Luck in a 2012 game at Indianapolis that forced a fumble return for a touchdown (which was eventually called back for a borderline roughing-the-passer call).
By Pro Football Focus' measures, Perry in the 2013 regular season rated a respectable 14th in pass rush productivity (which combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to pass rush opportunities) out of 41 qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers in the league. He led the Packers in that same statistic on the strength of finishing third on the team in sacks and third in hurries (23) despite averaging just 19 pass-rush snaps per game.
Where Perry has looked most uncomfortable going from a 4-3 defensive end in college to a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL is in pass coverage. Though it is rare for Perry to drop — he has done it on just 9 percent of his snaps during his career — he has struggled, allowing completions on every one of the 10 times he was targeted for 139 yards.
Since the Packers plan to use more packages and variations of their 3-4 scheme with the addition of free agents Peppers and Letroy Guion, and the re-signing of the versatile Neal, they may want to consider where they use Perry as a pass rusher. Predominately, he has lined up as the starter on the left side, though he has said he would prefer the right.
Taking PFF's pass rushing productivity metric a step further, Perry has actually been more effective from the right side. Though Perry rushed the passer 63.6 percent from the left side on passing plays in 2013, his productivity was 10 percent higher when he rushed from the right. And the year before, though he came from the left 78.6 percent, he was 12.7 percent more productive in his opportunities from the right.
By comparison, Matthews, over a five-year career, has essentially the same level of production from both sides. His largest disparity in productivity in any one season was just 3.9 percent in 2010.
These numbers represent a smaller sample size of course for Perry, who has been unable to stay on the field through three significant injuries over his first two years in the league. The Packers' depth along the front will challenge Perry to earn snaps and raises other questions.
Will Perry maintain his spot at left outside linebacker in the base 3-4 next year?
Will he get the opportunity to put his hand on the ground and rush as a defensive end like he did at USC?
Do the Packers have other plans for him?
Asked a follow-up question from his prior comments as to whether Perry is still in the transition phase Capers said, "Yeah, I think so. You've seen him rush the quarterback, sack the quarterback, knock the ball out, do some very good things. You'd like to be able to see that over a consistent period of time where he can stay healthy. I think if he does he'll make progress."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com