On the one hand, maybe Justin Harrell has turned the corner on his disastrous NFL career.
The new defensive coaching staff likes the 2007 first-round pick's combination of size, ability and intelligence. Harrell says he's finally healthy, and he's saying all the right things.
"Anytime you draft somebody as high as they drafted me and he hasn't done anything the whole two years up here, it's like he's getting free money," Harrell said during organized team activities last week. "I can totally understand where people are coming from. It's still one of those things, I've got to stay focused on trying to get myself healthy. I know once I get myself healthy, everything else will take care of itself."
On the other hand, maybe all of the words are so much hot air.
Harrell arrived at OTAs out of shape last year and wound up suffering a back injury that required two operations. One would think he had learned his lesson. Instead, Harrell checked in last week at 320 pounds, a byproduct of admittedly eating too much barbecue back home.
"Really my expectations for Justin are to stay healthy," coach Mike McCarthy said.
Talk about setting the bar low. Let's hope Harrell doesn't trip over it on the way to dinner.
It's easy to take cheap shots like that one at Harrell. In his two seasons, he's played in 13 of a possible 32 games with only two starts. He has no sacks, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries.
Harrell agrees that the new defense provides him a new lease on his professional life. The 6-foot-4 former Tennessee star says he wants to get down to about 305 pounds, which would make him the ideal size to play end in the new scheme. Plus, the new scheme puts him on an even playing field with his teammates, who are learning the ins and outs of the defense together.
"We've got a whole new coaching staff. I'm finally healthy for the first time. I look at it like a fresh start," Harrell said.
The Packers are counting on him to take advantage. They have some hope for Harrell, though as McCarthy's blunt words demonstrate, those hopes aren't as high as they were when he was taken 16th overall in 2007, ahead of first-round Pro Bowlers Michael Griffin and Jon Beason.
"He's perfect (for the new scheme)," new defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "He fits very well. I've been very pleased with the way Justin has approached this offseason. I have not been with him in the past and I can't speak for the past, but he's been very determined. He's moving very well. He's very focused. He's just naturally a bright kid. He wants to learn, he wants to know all the little ins and outs of the defense. He picks things up very quickly. He doesn't make a mistake twice very often."
Of course, none of this means a thing if Harrell can't stay healthy. He was mostly healthy at Tennessee until tearing the biceps tendon in his left arm early in his senior season. He talked the coaching staff into letting him play the following week against rival Florida before undergoing surgery. Because of the injury, he was unable to participate in the offseason program following the draft.
He wasn't good enough to get on the field during the first month of his rookie season, then missed a few games with an ankle injury. Whatever was gained with strong late-season performances against Chicago (nine tackles) and Seattle (four tackles in playoff win) was thrown out the window with last year's back injury. The first surgery sidelined him for offseason work; the second landed him on the physically unable to perform list for the first six regular-season games.
Harrell played in six games last year, saying upon his return from PUP that his back felt good. In fact, he never really felt good, and he was put on the shelf for the final three games with a related hip problem.
Again, Harrell says his back isn't an issue. This time, with the help of a chiropractor, he says he means it.
"Last year, I guess I was trying to tell myself that my back wasn't hurting," Harrell said. "And there really wasn't anything wrong, but it was always when I'd go out and start doing something, my hip started hurting, my back would hurt. These past four weeks, I can't say one time where I'd say, ‘Oh, my back's hurting.' That's helped me a lot. That was a big thing, just getting over that."
McCarthy talks frequently about March, April and May being the critical months for an individual to improve. Injuries deprived him of that work the previous two offseasons.
"This is my first OTAs since I've been here, and that's hard to believe going into my third year," Harrell said.
Perhaps the stars are finally coming into alignment for Harrell, who is signed through 2012. The Packers will keep six defensive linemen, and only projected starters Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins and B.J. Raji are locks. Of the next five in the pecking order, only Harrell and Johnny Jolly have the desired size and the ability to move inside. That he replaced Jenkins in the starting lineup at practice last week speaks to his untapped potential.
"I think all of the individual goals that he has and that we have for him, he'll be successful and reach," McCarthy said.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.