Jolly on track to return from neck surgery

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Johnny Jolly expects to be able to play this season and might even be cleared to return to football by the time free agency opens next month.

Jolly’s agent, Jack Bechta, said on Thursday that his client underwent single fusion neck surgery on Jan. 10 to repair a bulging disc in his neck between the C-5 and C-6 vertebrae.

It’s the same surgery that Packers safety Sean Richardson had last January. Richardson was able to return midway through last season and play an active role on defense. Jolly is expecting the same prognosis, if not better.

Bechta said Jolly has already begun light exercises and is scheduled for another MRI on March 11, the first day of free agency.

“I talked to the Packers [last week] about Johnny at the combine, and they said they love him,” Bechta said. “They’re just in a wait-and-see mode.”

The C-5/C-6 fusion surgery is much easier to come back from than fusions that are done higher in the neck. Former Packers safety Nick Collins had a C-3/C-4 fusion and was never cleared. That's the same fusion tight end Jermichael Finley had last season, although last week coach Mike McCarthy expressed optimism that Finley would be cleared.

Jolly’s comeback story was one of the more remarkable ones in the NFL last season. He returned to the league after serving jail time and a three-year suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy. He was open about his addiction to codeine.

Once viewed as a longshot to make the roster, he showed early in training camp that he could still be a factor. In part thanks to him, the Packers' run defense was ranked in the top five in the NFL the first half of the season. He played last season on a one-year, $715,000 contract.

Jolly, who turned 31 last week, began experiencing symptoms of weakness in his arm late in the season but wasn’t sure what it was. He finally dropped out in the first half of the Dec. 15 game against the Dallas Cowboys with what at the time was called a shoulder injury. A week later, he was placed on injured reserve.

“He played a couple of games and said he was losing strength,” Bechta said. “In typical Johnny fashion, he didn’t say anything right away to the doctors; he just played through it.”

Tests showed that Jolly had a bulging disc and that surgery was the best option for a return. Doctors took bone graft from Jolly’s hip to fuse his neck.

“It’s actually not the neck that’s limiting him right now but the hip where they take the graft from,” Bechta said.

The Packers’ entire starting defensive line – Jolly, B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett – are scheduled to be free agents next month.