When Green Bay Packers rookie linebacker Nathan Palmer made his first trip to Titletown earlier this spring to meet the coaching staff and get his first bit of inside exposure to an NFL organization, he wasn’t exactly sure where it would lead.
The standout pass rusher from tiny Division I-AA Illinois State University wasn’t invited to make any other pre-NFL draft visits to other team headquarters. And he wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine either, despite registering 117 tackles, 25 stops for a loss and 17 quarterback sacks in his collegiate career.
Palmer was a focal point of the Redbird defense during his two-year run of dominance as a rush linebacker and defensive end in defensive line coach Spence Nowinsky’s attacking 3-4 fire zone scheme.
Palmer’s biggest obstacle, then, was the perception among most NFL teams that the level of competition at most lower tier collegiate football conferences – such as Illinois State – is inferior.
But in this case the stat sheet vehemently disagrees.
Enter Green Bay linebacker coach Kevin Greene.
Earlier in the 2012 offseason, Greene accepted an invitation by Nowinsky to meet and help provide instruction on how to analyze pass rush techniques and collaborate on defensive schemes. In return, Nowinsky broke down the pistol offense for Greene, which Illinois State was exposed to nearly every week of the season in the wild world of the Missouri Valley Conference. Coming out of their coaching crash course, Greene learned a significant amount about the pistol. And he liked what he saw in Palmer on tape.
During his career in Green Bay, Greene’s become a master at squeezing every last drop of talent out of each of his linebacker prospects. Brad Jones, D.J. Smith, Dezman Moses, Frank Zombo and Erik Walden are just a few of his reclamation projects that have paid dividends, notably in the form of a Super Bowl title in 2010. Clay Matthews has said repeatedly that it’s been Greene’s tutelage more than anything else that has helped him become the player and fiery leader that he is today.
So, Palmer took his visit to Titletown in stride, admitting after the fact that he thought it would be his first – and probably last – such visit before real life replaced his dream of playing professional football.
Eventually Greene met Palmer and they sat down and watched film of Matthews. They studied the nuances of Matthews’ pass rush moves. They broke down defensive tape and Greene illustrated ways that Palmer could improve as a rusher from a two-point stance down in the dirt.
Analyzing the offense pre-snap, Greene said, and being able to gain leverage closer to the line are critical skills for college defensive lineman to develop if they hope to make the transition to life as an NFL edge rusher like Matthews. Just ask hybrid linebacker Nick Perry who spent most of his college career chasing the quarterback with his hand first planted firmly on the ground.
He had some success in 2012 but suffered an injury and has a ways to go if he hopes to be a difference-maker in the Green Bay defense.
Toward the end of Palmer’s visit, Greene proposed something to Palmer that set the tone for his senior year at Illinois State and, ultimately, set the path for him to be drafted.
According to Palmer, “He said, ‘I can get you there, if you want it. If you want to go there, I got what it takes to get you to that next level. All you have to do is be a hard worker like him. I think that’s the kind of person you are. Let’s go to that next level.'”
For Palmer, a one-time prized Division I recruit who spent two seasons operating as a little-used role player at the University of Illinois, he almost couldn’t believe what he heard. That Greene wanted to coach him and more importantly he thought Palmer had what it took to play right alongside the NFL’s best linebacker.
Ultimately, Palmer was chosen in the sixth round of April’s NFL Draft by the Packers, something he said he wasn’t expecting despite his offseason session with Greene and that visit to Green Bay.
With training camp quickly approaching, though, Palmer will get a shot to realize his dream. He isn’t under any illusions about starting right away for the Packers in a crowded linebacker group. Right now he said he’s focused on learning everything he can from the game’s best linebacker coach and soaking up Matthews’ every move.
If Palmer can demonstrate a good understanding of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ attacking 3-4 scheme – one nearly identical to the system he excelled in while at Illinois State – he could very well become the latest prospect to bolster a unit that desperately needs a young, aggressive and coachable talent infusion to step up in 2013.