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Point, counterpoint: Rookie impact

Posted May 1, 2012

Which rookie draft pick will have the greatest impact in 2012?

Mike SpoffordPackers.com Staff Writer Mike Spofford says it’ll be Nick Perry.

I know, I know, this is the obvious answer. Perry is the first-round pick, so, of course he’s going to have the biggest impact among the rookies.

Let me preface this by saying, however, that I think this is a close call between Perry and second-round pick Jerel Worthy. The Packers won a Super Bowl with an outside linebacker group of Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and Brad Jones opposite star Clay Matthews, so I’m not underestimating the impact Worthy could have.

Pairing Worthy with B.J. Raji as interior rushers will give offenses a lot to think about aside from Matthews. There was a reason Matthews and Cullen Jenkins didn’t line up on the same side in 2010.

That said, though, it’s impossible not to envision Green Bay’s defense making even bigger improvements with a player like Perry opposite Matthews. The outside linebacker position is the bread-and-butter spot in the 3-4 Dom Capers coordinates, and a Matthews-Perry pair could give the Packers something akin to the premier tandem among 3-4 practitioners – Pittsburgh’s James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

Over the last four seasons, as the Steelers have sported one of the league’s top defenses, the fewest number of sacks Harrison and Woodley have combined for is 18. That was last season when they each had nine. The three years before that, both were in double digits, every year, with a combined high of 27½ sacks (Harrison 16, Woodley 11½ in 2008 when the Steelers last won the Super Bowl).

Last year, Matthews led the Packers’ struggling defense with just six sacks, and in the previous two years, when Matthews was in double figures, no other Packers outside linebacker had more than four sacks.

Getting an explosive partner – Perry runs a 4.5 at 270 pounds – should be just what Matthews and the Packers need. Over his 26 NFL seasons, Capers’ best defenses have featured memorable pairs at that cornerstone position: Pittsburgh’s Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd, Carolina’s Greene and Lamar Lathon.

The last time the Packers made a major investment in an outside linebacker was right after Capers was hired, when General Manager Ted Thompson traded up to get back into the first round in 2009 and grab Matthews at No. 26 overall. Since Aaron Kampman’s knee injury midway through that season, Matthews’ companion on the other side has been either a seventh-round draft pick (Jones), an undrafted free agent (Zombo) or a street free agent (Walden).

The last two seasons have shown that patchwork approach can be boom or bust. It worked like a charm in 2010 but didn’t cut it last year.

The second major investment was made last Thursday night. It offers the biggest potential payoff.

Vic KetchmanPackers.com Editor Vic Ketchman says it’ll be Casey Hayward.

It’s a tall order for any rookie to be the guy that steps into Charles Woodson’s shoes, but should Hayward be that guy, well, his impact on the Packers defense will be twofold and potentially sweeping.

With the release of Nick Collins due to his neck injury, the Packers officially have a void at safety. They drafted a safety, Jerron McMillian of Maine, and maybe he’ll help fill that void, but consensus opinion is that a move from cornerback could do for Woodson’s career what it did for Ronnie Lott and Rod Woodson, which is to have lengthened its greatness.

What Packers defensive back has the best hands?

Woodson.

What Packers defensive back is best at playing the ball in the air?

Woodson.

Who led the Packers in interceptions last season?

Woodson.

The legs may be going on 36, but the hands and instincts are still those of a player in his prime. Oh, and did I mention that Woodson has long been one of the best tackling cornerbacks in the game?

Those are the prerequisites for being a safety. He’s a defensive back with strong instincts and good hands, who can play the ball in the air and support against the run. As a safety, Woodson’s interceptions total might even increase.

He can’t be moved there, however, unless another player steps up at cornerback. Maybe Sam Shields or Davon House will be that player, but neither of them are 2012 draft picks; Hayward is.

Can Hayward do it? In his rookie season, can he be expected to play well enough to allow Woodson to move to safety?

Well, let’s start with this: Hayward played in the SEC, which means he faced the best competition college football has to offer week in and week out. He played against all of that legendary southern speed, and having done so as a member of the Vanderbilt Commodores, it’s not as though Hayward covered all of that southern speed with the kind of fierce pass rush Morris Claiborne had at LSU and Dre Kirkpatrick had at Alabama.

Maybe he can do it right away, maybe it’ll take a little longer, but this much is for certain: For what Hayward could mean to two positions, he will be a rookie of intense scrutiny in this summer’s training camp. He could be the player that makes the most impact in this year’s draft class.

What do you think?

 
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