"There were stretches in games where [he] was utterly dominant."
"He holds his ground and doesn't get pushed around."
"[He] is at his best when he is trying to get into the backfield to make plays."
"When I saw him he...sort of knocked you out. He's like a get-off (the snap) freak."
"He comes with a terrific amount of upside."
"He's...going to be a terror as an inside pass-rusher at the next level."
Just over two years later, the conversation regarding improving Green Bay's D rarely, if ever, involves him. A knee injury at the end of his disappointing rookie campaign and ensuing reconstruction surgery kept him from playing in all but two games last season. Suddenly, the player who was selected by Ted Thompson to be a playmaker in Dom Capers' scheme seems to be invisible. And that, perhaps, is symbolic of the great enigma that is Jerel Worthy.
Worthy's Pre-Draft Hype
The quotes above represent some of the viewpoints of scouts and draftniks during the 2012 draft process. Green Bay was coming off an awful defensive year and a season that saw the team lose only one game in the regular season but also its only game in the postseason. It was clear that the defensive line missed Cullen Jenkins; the rock-solid Jenkins had collapsed the pocket and clogged running lanes, helping the linebackers and secondary alike. Without his presence, offenses found it easy to gash the Packers' D with power running, thus leaving the corners and safeties (crippled by Nick Collins' absence) vulnerable.
hat just made Worthy all the more appealing to Packers fans, many of whom saw qualities in Worthy that made him an ideal replacement for Jenkins. CBS Sports, in particular, wrote a glowing report on Worthy.
"Vocal on and off the field; points out potential hot receivers and run plays to teammates before the snap, something you don't see many interior linemen do." "Impressive explosiveness off the snap, shocks his man with a strong initial punch and can also out-quick him to get into the backfield." "Closes well on quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield and rarely gets (sic) go of ballcarriers once making contact." In other words, Worthy sounded like the cure to what ailed Green Bay. A vocal, instinctive lineman with sure tackling and explosiveness? It was difficult not to see what Worthy could become with his flaws remedied, and it led some to moniker Worthy as an elite prospect.
Looking at the same scouting reports that all but guaranteed Worthy paper-tiger status amongst many of those in the media, the telltale signs of a disappointment flash through. "He can get neutralized at times by double teams...because of effort and breakdown of technique," as per NFL.com. "Does not split doubles regularly or have a great bull rush, often giving up after initial contact," said CBS Sports, adding that "his stamina and conditioning will be a concern for scouts unless improvements are made," and that he "does not regularly chase plays downfield or towards the sideline." Suddenly, the player who looks like a potential savior for the defense seems like a low-effort, out-of-shape, inconsistent prospect with potential that he will likely never live up to.
Unfortunately, the Packers have seen this side of Worthy more than his flashes of potential, exemplified by his 2012 season, which saw him make a grand total of 11 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Even ignoring the injury, Worthy has not exactly cemented his status in the league in the manner of his fellow second-rounder, Casey Hayward. While both missed the vast majority of this past season, Hayward's phenomenal rookie season makes him a shoo-in for a major role in 2014. Worthy, on the other hand, will likely be competing with the likes of Khyri Thornton for situational reps. And simply put, that is not what a second-rounder is supposed to be in the long run.
Reasons for Optimism
If you really think about it, Worthy's subpar 2012 season (and yes, it was very much subpar) shouldn't have been shocking. Virtually every draft report I've gone back and read warned that the team that took (my best unintentional alliteration in some time, by the way) the Michigan State star would have to be patient. Jerel Worthy won matchups in college because, quite simply, he was bigger, stronger and faster than his opponents. Like many defensive linemen going pro, he struggled with consistency, wreaking havoc for a couple of drives and then disappearing for quarters on end. A situational role was thus the right one to place him in, and while his first year was not at all impressive, he probably would have progressed in his second year if not for the injury (the leap I expect Datone Jones to make.)
Furthermore, the Packers' abundance of players on the line means that Worthy won't be forced into starter duty immediately. I expect the starting three D-linemen to be Mike Daniels, BJ Raji and Datone Jones (whose shaky first season was foreseen by many, but should be better after two offseasons and a year of experience) with guys like Josh Boyd, Khyri Thornton and, yes, Jerel Worthy, subbing in on passing downs. That's his specialty, anyway, so Green Bay would be playing to his strengths. In other words, a situational role in the Packers' defense is the perfect fit for Jerel Worthy.
You've seen what left scouts enamored with Worthy, what didn't, and what he's done in the league. You also know that he's coming off a knee injury, which is a major blow for any player, regardless of his position. It's anybody's guess how he rebounds from that. If he makes a full recovery, it would be reasonable to anticipate him becoming a consistent contributor on third downs. Four or five sacks wouldn't be out of the question, but his most valuable role could be in keeping Clay Matthews from being double-teamed.
If Worthy isn't the physical specimen he was before injury, he could very well be on the roster bubble. He's an undeveloped player, and thus, he's reliant on his great physical tools to allow him to make plays. Without his quickness on his side, he has nothing to fall back on and would likely be nothing more than a competent backup. Is that harsh? Maybe. But the tape doesn't lie, and every evaluator looked at Jerel Worthy as a project worth an early pick because of his untapped physical abilities, not unlike Ra'Shede Hageman. Should Worthy suddenly become a great deal less intriguing, he'll also become a great deal more expendable.
As for where I fall, being an optimist, I see him making a good recovery. His limited motor will likely prevent him from being a double-digit sack guy in the league (it doesn't help that he plays 3-4 DE, a position at which only J.J. Watt has consistently racked up takedowns), but there's no reason to believe he can't at least accumulate four or five a year. But there's perhaps no other player on this roster (with the possible exception of Colt Lyerla) who holds such a disparity between his best- and worst-case scenario. I see him falling towards the former, although certainly not all the way. If there's an offseason question that must be answered but hasn't been asked by the majority of the media, it's how Worthy will play this year. And his impact in 2014, over a year removed from surgery, will prove a much more effective response than words may ever construct.