It was late in training camp last summer and Nate Palmer was squarely on the Green Bay Packers’ roster bubble.
As a sixth-round pick in 2013, Palmer made the roster as an outside linebacker and even started two midseason games. But the offseason additions of free agent Julius Peppers and fourth-round pick Carl Bradford sent the obvious message that the Packers were looking to upgrade their outside linebacker corps.
Heading into last year’s final preseason game, the coaches approached Palmer about moving to inside linebacker. Changing positions so late in camp is never a good sign. It would be the third position change in as many years for Palmer, who played defensive end at Illinois State.
“Just go out there and make plays, make an impact and just do my job,” Palmer said of his reaction. “Essentially, you’re fighting for a roster spot in that situation. Go out there, show your worth, show your versatility. They always say, the more you can do, it’s always going to be beneficial. I just tried to go out there and showcase that ability.”
He barely got that chance. Palmer sustained a knee injury against the Chiefs and was banished to injured reserve.
Fast forward 11 months and it was a similar story of upheaval in Palmer’s position group. After moving Clay Matthews inside during the middle of last season, the Packers jettisoned A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore and used a fourth-round pick on Jake Ryan. Much like 2014, Palmer would be battling Bradford – who also was moved to inside linebacker before the Kansas City game last year – for a roster spot.
“I always felt like I’m on the bubble. I don’t think that I’m a guaranteed lock roster spot,” Palmer said. “Even this year when I was a starter for a couple of preseason games, I always felt like I was on the bubble because you never know which way things may go. When they approached me with that last year, I was like, ‘OK, Nate, get in gear and get the job done and go out there and just leave it all out there. If it’s not good enough, at least I can say I gave it my best.’”
Palmer gave it his best and, this time, the bubble didn’t get close to bursting. Even while playing one-handed with a club-cast protecting an injured hand, Palmer spent most of training camp running with the first unit in place of an injured Matthews. And with Sam Barrington going on injured reserve on Tuesday with an injured ankle, Palmer will find himself in the starting lineup alongside Matthews for Sunday night’s showdown against Seattle.
Just like that, Palmer has gone from trying to make the roster to trying to earn a long-term spot in the starting lineup
“I’m just focused on seizing this opportunity that I have right now and making the most of it,” he said.
Playing linebacker with one hand is no easy task, yet Palmer has managed to muddle through. In the long run, he thinks it might even make him a better player as he’s had to focus on beating players to the spot rather than engaging in hand-to-hand combat. In the short run, he’s going to have to handle Marshawn Lynch on Sunday night. Tackling Lynch with two hands is difficult enough. Palmer will try to do it with one-and-a-half hands, with the injured hand out of the club cast but with two fingers protected by a hard splint.
“It’s not ideal, obviously,” assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said. “You’d love, as much as we use our hands, to have both of them available. But it’s something he’s got to live with and deal with. He played through the preseason with it, I think he feels better about it. Hopefully we can start weaning him out of the club. Last week he was in the split. Not ideal but something we have to work through.”
Palmer is used to working through things. He opened his career at Illinois but transferred to get more playing time. There was a move to outside linebacker. Then a move to inside linebacker. Then a year on injured reserve.
So what’s a hand injury for a guy who is hungry to make his mark?
“Everything has changed a lot, even from my rookie year to now,” he said. “My rookie year, I came in not knowing what to expect and then starting Week 6 I think it was, and then playing and not playing, and then going on IR last year. It’s just a whirlwind roller-coaster ride. I’m just trying to ride the highs and stay positive with the lows.”