Packers’ defense looks to improve on strength of second-year players

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Perry, Hayward lead promising six-player sophomore class
When the Green Bay Packers set out to improve their flagging defense they didn’t fool around in the 2012 NFL draft.
Packers’ GM Ted Thompson spent his first six draft picks on that side of the football. The result was a strong, six-player class that arrived in Green Bay teeming with promise and potential.
A year later, defensive coordinator Dom Capers is relying on that group to spearhead the Packers’ defensive revival. While 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones is going to receive much attention, and rightfully so, others such as second-year defenders Nick Perry and Casey Hayward are being counted on to get Green Bay back to the NFC Championship Game. Perry, Worthy and Hayward started multiple games as rookies, and McMillian, Daniels and Manning all forged roles and contributed.
Here is a look at the 2012 draft class going into its second training camp:

Nick Perry, LB, #53

The powerfully built outside linebacker played in just six games last season, including five starts, before being sidelined by a knee injury and a season-ending thumb injury.
Perry, the 28th pick overall, flashed early and often in training camp. He earned the starting right outside linebacker job opposite Clay Matthews and was impressive before injuries derailed him.
Perry notched two sacks and collected 29 tackles in his rookie season. He is slated to start at ROLB again, and will team with this year’s top pick – Datone Jones – to anchor the defense opposite Matthews.
The one-two punch of Perry and Jones is being counted on to balance the defense and give offenses more to worry about than Matthews. The Perry-Jones duo is sure to generate a lot of buzz in camp and beyond.

Jerel Worthy, DE, #99

Worthy, a high energy defensive end from Michigan State, was an early second-round pick of Thompson’s. While some NFL personnel experts had concerns about Worthy’s intensity going into the draft, nobody in Green Bay questioned it coming out of training camp.
Worthy started four of the 14 games he played in and was extremely effective at right defensive end. He registered 23 tackles, including 12 solo, and added 2 ½ sacks and a forced fumble.
Often overlooked is the negative impact Worthy’s knee injury had on the defensive unit. Worthy sustained a season-ending injury late in the Packers’ season finale at Minnesota. Undoubtedly it had a domino effect on the defensive line’s rotation going into the playoffs.
Capers found himself short by one defensive lineman and Green Bay paid the price in a 45-31 loss at San Francisco in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Would Worthy have made the difference? Probably not, but his absence certainly made the 49ers’ task that much easier.
Worthy continues to rehabilitate his surgically repaired knee and has stated that he intends to play this season. His return is most welcome whenever it occurs.

Casey Hayward, CB, #29

Hayward played in 16 regular-season games and both playoff contests as a key member of the Packers’ secondary. The rangy, athletic cornerback had 55 tackles and team highs in interceptions (six) and passes defended (25) while starting seven games.
The second-round pick from Vanderbilt is expected to push Sam Shields for the starting corner spot opposite Tramon Williams. Whoever doesn’t win the starting job is going to be a key in the nickel and dime packages.
Hayward’s six interceptions were fourth-best in the NFL, and tops among rookies. He picked up right where he left off last season in the spring minicamps. When it’s all said and done, Hayward might be the best defender in the class of 2012.

Mike Daniels, DE, #76

Daniels, the first of two fourth-round selections, quietly worked his way into a role with the defense. He played in 14 games and delivered 19 tackles (11 solo), two sacks and two forced fumbles – one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Daniels will push for time in the defensive line rotation while providing pressure on passing downs in some sub-packages.
For such a raw talent there is much to like.

Jerron McMillian, S, #22

The second of two fourth-round picks, McMillian played in all 16 regular-season games in the defense’s sub-packages. He registered 30 tackles (21 solo) along with an interception, a fumble recovery and six passes defended.
The guess here is that McMillian eventually wins the starting safety job opposite veteran Morgan Burnett during training camp.
Even as a rookie, McMillian’s awareness, confidence and football IQ stood out. He has a nose for the football and is a willing tackler. The future is bright for McMillian.

Terrell Manning, LB, #56

Manning, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina State, saw limited action because of a virus that affected him early in training camp.
Nevertheless, Manning flashed on special teams and contributed two special teams’ tackles in the postseason. The Packers believe Manning is going to be a good player who could develop into a starter one day.
When the Packers decided not to re-sign Desmond Bishop much of the attention was given to his replacement, Brad Jones. However, Manning’s youth and untapped potential also were factors. It would be a mistake to underrate Manning going into this season.

Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio ( Havel also hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.