Green Bay Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene has made chicken out of feathers before.
In 2010, the Packers won a Super Bowl with Brad Jones, Frank Zombo and Erik Walden starting games opposite Clay Matthews. In Greene's first four seasons, Walden (sixth round; 26 starts), Jones (seventh round; 13 starts), the miscast Aaron Kampman (fifth round; nine starts), Zombo (undrafted; nine starts); Dezman Moses (undrafted; six starts); Nick Perry (first round; five starts), Brady Poppinga (fourth round; four starts) and Robert Francois (undrafted; one start) have started games at outside linebacker.
All told, that's 73 starts. Of them, 42 came from players who arrived in Green Bay off the street (Walden) or as undrafted free agents.
Even by that standard, Greene faces quite a challenge in getting his group ready for 2013.
Outside of Matthews, the outside linebacker room includes Perry, Moses, rookie sixth-round pick Nate Palmer and rookie free agents Andy Mulumba, Donte Savage and Jarvis Wilson.
Perry was supposed to be the long-awaited "Robin" to Matthews' "Batman" as the 28th selection in 2012. Instead, Perry never looked comfortable making the transition from 4-3 collegiate defensive end to 3-4 professional outside linebacker. He injured his wrist early in the season but played through the pain before a knee injury at Houston in Week 6. About a month later, he was put on injured reserve and had surgery to repair the wrist. He finished with two sacks in six games.
"You know, I think he was coming along," Greene said at the end of last season. "There's a lot to learn at this position. You really need to put in a lot of time and the cleats on the field to get better. It's just hard to watch and get better. You really need to have time on the field. He was coming along."
Moses, an undrafted free agent, looked more natural than Perry from the start. He contributed four sacks and a forced fumble in 16 games, plus drew five penalties in 504 snaps — the third-best rate in the NFL among defensive linemen and linebackers, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
With Walden and Zombo allowed to depart in free agency, the Packers are incredibly thin and inexperienced with four rookies fortifying the depth chart.
They badly need Palmer to make an immediate contribution. Playing in the Missouri Valley Conference, Palmer registered 7.5 sacks, 15 tackles for losses and an FCS-leading 27 quarterback pressures as a senior. That, of course, is against lower-level competition.
"I like to get after the quarterback," Palmer said at the rookie camp. "I'm not going to stake a claim to myself but when it comes down to third-and-long, I like to be out there rushing the quarterback."
Palmer's college coach, Brock Spack, compared Palmer to Cliff Avril and Anthony Spencer, two productive defenders he coached when he was Purdue's defensive coordinator. Spack also called Palmer a quarterback of the defense, a rare thing to say about a defensive end.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy was impressed, too.
"Palmer, I was about ready to move him to tight ends after the first ball drill. He's got exceptional hand-eye coordination for a linebacker," McCarthy said.
Of the other rookies, neither Mulumba, Savage nor Wilson was particularly productive. At Eastern Michigan, Mulumba — a native of Congo and a resident of Montreal who was the No. 2 overall pick of the CFL draft — had just one sack as a senior.
Savage and Wilson were signed after successful tryouts. Savage, who missed 2011 for academic reasons, had three sacks, seven tackles for losses and two blocked kicks as a senior. Wilson is the superior athlete, with an impressive 4.64 at pro day. He had just one-half sack as a senior after posting seven as a junior.
So, the onus is on Greene to get Perry ready after he missed out on 12 games (including playoffs) to further his linebacker transformation. It'll be up to Greene to take Moses to the next level and get Palmer up to speed quickly. And it will be up to Greene to turn more feathers into chicken with a new crop of linebacker prospects.
"The outside linebacker position definitely requires a certain body type and skill-set there," McCarthy said. "And you have to give a lot of credit to Kevin Greene. I'm not trying to disrespect other coaches but he's a man who played the position at a very high level in this defense. So, there's a ton of expertise that goes into that position being taught on a daily basis. I think it's been reflected in his time here."
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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. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.