Somewhere out there at this very moment, there are fans of the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders talking themselves into the upcoming season. Getting excited even. As the most of us know, fans of those teams usually have that excitement shot into the sky like a clay pigeon and annihilated with a bazooka some time around the first half of Week 1. But right now? Everyone's on an even playing field because of one reason:
It's the great equalizer in sports. It's that one great golf shot that keeps you coming back to the course even though you spent enough time in the woods to warrant a Bear Grylls survival kit. In football and other sports, potential fills our off-seasons with hope and possibility. It makes us eagerly watch things as ridiculous as an event where young men are called onto stage to put on a hat. But that's just the thing about sports. Almost everything is based on potential. Players get paid on it, fans speculate on it and teams sell season tickets on it. Potential is a powerful thing, capable of turning what would otherwise be rational sports fans into starry-eyed authors of their own fictional masterpiece.
That's not to say fans (well, not all of them) are delusional, though. The appeal of potential exists because sometimes everything does work out. With the Packers, we already know their potential as a team because they've somewhat recently fulfilled it. But in thinking about the players themselves, particularly the younger ones, I started to wonder about their potential, and what kind of players they'll eventually become. To answer that question, I posed two scenarios using current (or former) players as the model for what their destinies could be. One looks at the ideal player they could develop into, and one looks at a more likely comparison.
Best Case: Aaron Smith
It's easy to forget that before hyper athletic 3-4 ends like JJ Watt and Quinton Coples were all the rage, Aaron Smith was really freaking good. Where 3-4 ends were (and to a degree, still are) more block eaters than stat accumulators, Smith did both, making the Steelers defense of the early and mid-2000's one of the most formidable in football. While Datone Jones isn't quite as athletic as Mario Williams or Watt, he's more athletic than Smith was. If he's got even half of Smith's motor, look out.
Most likely: Everson Griffen
Now that Jones has bulked up to about 290 lbs. it's tough to tell how much of his athleticism he'll retain. At UCLA however, Jones' burst and overall length reminded me a lot of former USC'er Everson Griffen. While only a 4th round pick by the Vikes, Griffen has steadily improved since his rookie year in 2010, doubling his sack numbers last year (8.0) from the previous season.
Best Case: Tamba Hali
For the last few years, Hali has been the gold standard for bigger outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense. At 6'3 275 lbs. he's almost identical to Perry's height and weight. And while Perry was limited to just 6 games last year before injuring his wrist, he certainly showed flashes of what could be a very productive career, including this absolute obliteration of Andrew Luck.
Most likely: Adalius Thomas
Before he essentially ate himself out of the league, Adalius Thomas actually had a pretty nice career, racking up two Pro Bowl appearances and one All-Pro. Though he only hit double digit sacks once during his decade in the league, Thomas was a fairly consistent player and one of the more stout 3-4 OLB's against the run, something that helped spark the Patriots to their undefeated 2007 season
and Super Bowl victory.
Best Case: Jerome Bettis
At first glance, it might seem silly to compare a rookie who has yet to take the field to a first ballot Hall of Famer. But consider this, Bettis only eclipsed 1,500 rushing yards once and has a career average of 3.9 yards per game. In fact, Bettis' greatest asset may have been his durability. Who knows what Lacy's career numbers will pan out to, but in terms of the kind of player Lacy could become, I like the Bettis comparison. Short. Stocky. Bulldozer'y.
Most likely: Jonathan Stewart
He's been banged up pretty consistently over his career, but Stewart seems like a fair comparison here. When healthy, he's a double-digit touchdown threat and has more speed than his size might suggest. Like Stewart, Lacy also seems to have good instincts and patience when running behind his blockers. If he can be more durable than Stewart, he could be an even better version - something most Packers fans would be happy with.
Best Case: Charles Woodson
As our own Josh VanDyke pointed out, the Packers coaching staff is already making this comparison. So, why not? Woodson's always been a tough, willing tackler, but like Hayward, Woodson's biggest strength are his instincts. While physical corners like Richard Sherman use their speed and strength to control receivers, Hayward used those instincts in his rookie year exceptionally well. Playing next to Woodson probably helped, but if Hayward can continue to diagnose plays and make quick reads without Woodson's presence, he could be special.
Most likely: Dre Bly
Bly is one of those players who will never be mentioned as a Hall of Fame candidate, but whose numbers aren't that far off (through their first eight years in the league, Bly had nearly double the number of picks than Woodson - 33 to 17). The good thing is, Hayward seems to possess many of the good qualities Bly had (keen instincts, solid hands) without any of the bad (a tendency to gamble for the big play). He's also a more skilled tackler than Bly was. It'll take more good years from Hayward, but if he stays healthy, there's no reason why he can't equal Bly's decade of solid performance.
Best Case: Nick Barnett
Musafa's time in Green Bay eventually became known more for his weird mouthguards and him sporting as many hairstyles as Andrew Bynum, but make no mistake - Barnett in his prime could play. Manning is still a bit of a darkhorse at ILB, but thus far in camp, he's shown a lot of the Barnett-like speed, lateral agility and coverage skills that made Ted Thompson trade up to get him. Barnett likely won't be remembered as one of the Packers' all-timers, but for a brief period, he was among the fiercest linebackers in football.
Most likely: DeAndre Levy
Levy is a competent starting inside linebacker which, if that's what you can get from a 5th round draft pick (Manning), you take. Like Manning, Levy is a bit on the small side (239 lbs.) but uses his athleticism and range to make plays. Right now, Manning is probably on the fringe of even making the team, but his speed and fluidity make Hawk and Brad Jones look like one of those human Roman statues you see in Vegas. He's got starter's potential.
Agree with these comparisons? Think that another player is more appropriate? Let us know what you think in the comments below.