GREEN BAY, Wis. -- I'll say this much: Nick Perry looks like a baaaaad man, which in this context means he looks the part of a strong, fast, mean pass-rushing outside linebacker in the mold of James Harrison or even his current position coach, Kevin Greene. Perry is 6-foot-3 and 271 pounds with less than 10 percent body fat, and he's not above rolling his jersey sleeves up during a minicamp practice to expose his biceps. In a no-pads environment in the spring, it's easy to see why the Green Bay Packers have such high hopes for their latest first-round draft choice.
But can he play the position? After all, the NFL landscape is littered annually by great athletes who can't master the finer points of playing linebacker in the 3-4. That's the real question, and it's one that can't be answered until Perry completes the transition from a college defensive end. To get a better understanding of what that entails, and how it's going, I sought out Greene after the Packers' first minicamp practice Tuesday.
Many of us would consider the techniques of dropping into pass coverage as the most difficult adjustment for a player moving from end to linebacker. Greene, however, said Perry's biggest challenge will be expanding his pre-snap vision. I thought Greene's insight was tremendous during our conversation, so be prepared for some extensive quotes to follow.
"He's coming from a situation where his head was down [before the snap]," Greene said. "He's keying one thing. Or his head's up and he's keying the hip of an offensive tackle or guard. Or he's looking at the ball. He's keying one thing.
"Now he's got to stand up in a two-point stance and has to capture all five eligibles in his vision. And he has to know what each one of those guys are. Is it a halfback,? Is it a running back? Is it a fulback? Is it a tight end? Is it the second tight end? Is it a receiver? He's got to capture all five eligibles, understand who they are and what they mean to his pass coverage responsibility. And to see motions and to see shifts in alignments, that's the hardest thing, taking a guy like this and now focusing from sideline to sideline and capturing everything."
Handling the footwork and other fundamental aspects of pass coverage should be the least of Perry's concerns, Greene said.
"I think you can get a guy that's very athletic and can do those things," Greene said. "People can drop and cover and do the things athletically that it takes to play the position. They can play with a low pad level. They're athletic enough to be in a two-point stance. All that stuff is techniques and fundamentals and I think you can coach it.
"But the thing that's hard is keeping them from being in a tunnel vision mode, something that they've done their whole career. They need to be able to say, 'Wait a second, I need to see that guy. Oh, I need to see that guy all the way across the field across from Clay [Matthews], because he just told me something.' That's the thing. That's one of the hardest things I think."
I realize the Packers didn't draft Perry to drop into pass coverage. But he's not going to get on the field regularly until he can do it, and thus the Packers won't be able to reap the presumed benefits of his pass rush until then.
And in the end, the best measure of Perry's success could be reflected in Matthews' production this season. Like all 3-4 schemes, the Packers must achieve balance from their pass rush to maximize it.
"If [Matthews] doesn't have a credible threat on the other side," Greene said, "then offensive coordinators say, 'Hey, let's just take this 52 out of the game and we'll be fine.' … But if you have another dog on the other corner, they have to say, '52, now he's tough, but we can't afford to always double team him, because they've got that big dog over there and he's hunting. So we've got to pick our spots when we double Clay, sometimes we have to solo him, because we've got to hit that guy with two on this series. Sometimes we have double him. Now we've got to double Clay with two and we're taking our chance one-on-one with this other big dog on the corner.'
"See what I'm saying? That's why it's so important."
Again, I think it will take some time before we know if Nick Perry can provide that sort of balance. But what we know now is this: His work before the snap is going to be every bit as important as what he does after it.