Nick Perry stood at his locker for almost 15 minutes Thursday, answering question after question after question. Even though he knew they were coming, it couldn’t have been easy, considering the tenor of the discussion.
And yet, nothing the Green Bay Packers’ 2012 first-round draft pick said sent as clear a message as the huge smile he was wearing at the end of the conversation.
“It’s a beautiful year this year,” the grinning outside linebacker told the handful of reporters who’d stayed until the end. “And I’m looking forward to it.”
And that’s the key for Perry – looking forward. Because, after two disappointing seasons, that’s all Perry can do. He started that process of moving forward Thursday, when he was activated from the physically unable to perform list, with the hope that the lingering foot/knee injury that hampered him during the second half of last season and kept him out for all of the offseason is finally behind him.
“It was good to get Nick back out there,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after practice. “These reps are so important. Missed practices in training camp in today’s world are a little more magnified obviously than in past years.
“Availability is a primary focus for job responsibility, definitely. We obviously have had some tough times (with Perry) in the past, but we feel like we’re doing things to stay in front of that. Sometimes players go through injury situations. Sometimes it just takes a little while to get off that cycle. Hopefully, he’s off that.”
That cycle has wrecked each of Perry’s first two seasons – and each injury occurred just when he seemed to be coming around at a position that he’s had to learn at the pro level after being a 4-3 defensive end in college at USC.
“Over the past couple years, I've learned a lot and I've progressed,” Perry insisted. “I still think I have a bright future.”
As a rookie, Perry played in six games before needing season-ending surgery for a wrist injury that had actually happened in the regular-season opener. Last year, he played in 11 games, but he missed five games after suffering a foot injury against Baltimore on Oct. 13 and was largely ineffective in the six games he did suit up for following the injury.
"We've all got to deal with something throughout our careers," Perry said. "Hopefully, we're flipping the page on that, and we're looking forward to a better year this year."
The injuries have been bad enough. But the bigger issue for Perry has been the timing of them. Since he was converting from hand-in-the-dirt defensive end to stand-up outside linebacker, there was bound to be growing pains – and there were.
But the 2012 wrist injury became unbearable in a Week 6 game against Houston – one week after he’d had a jaw-dropping (albeit penalty-drawing and fine-inducing) sack of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. The penalty for roughing the passer – enforced even though Perry planted his facemask into Luck’s sternum – notwithstanding, it was the kind of impact play that is expected of first-round picks.
So too last year, Perry had forced strip-sack fumbles in consecutive weeks, first taking down Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and then Baltimore’s Joe Flacco. Perry had five tackles, including two sacks, against the Lions to earn a game ball from the coaches; against the Ravens, his strip-sack on Flacco just before halftime was recovered by Datone Jones and set up a Mason Crosby field goal in what ended up being a 19-17 victory.
But at the end of the play, 300-pound Ravens offensive lineman Marshal Yanda landed with his full weight on Perry’s foot. Perry missed the next three games, came back briefly against Philadelphia on Nov. 10, then missed two more games. He saw action in the last five regular-season games but was a non-factor, although he did add a sack in the playoff loss to San Francisco.
“It’s always about gaining that momentum,” Perry said when asked about the timing of his injuries. (He later said the foot injury did not require surgery.) “When you play games, you get that experience and you go into that next game more experienced -- knowing your opponents, all of those things that play a part of your success. I think at those points in time, things were looking good and I was getting in the flow. But setbacks happened, and I wasn’t able to finish due to things.
“I’m trying to flip the page now and move ahead.”
With the arrival of veteran Julius Peppers and the emergence last season of Mike Neal, Perry’s role this season is unclear. He’s one of several players lining up at what McCarthy is calling the “elephant” position, but he did work with the No. 1 defense immediately on Thursday, which was a good sign.
Still, he knows he has a long way to go before he delivers on the expectations that come with being a first-round pick. If he manages to stay healthy this year and not wind up on the sideline just as he’s building that momentum, he might be ripe for a breakthrough.
“It’s going to be exciting seeing all of these guys working together. We’ve got Peppers, all of us [are] healthy. We’re ready to roll and I think the new position, it’ll help,” Perry said. “I’ve made huge leaps coming from playing defensive end and now moving into outside linebacker position. I know the defense, I have a good foundation
“There’s always that notion [of], ‘If I could have been healthy, things would have been better for me.’ I haven’t had the seasons that I’ve wanted due to that, but the main goal for me every year is staying healthy and playing to the best of my ability.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.