It's time for the eighth annual "Best & Worst Case Scenario" series, a feature that goes back to the days of the old RailbirdCentral.com domain.
I attempt to take a look at what is the very best possible season a player is capable of producing, and on the other hand, what would happen if a player fell flat on his face (without assuming they suffer a season-ending injury). These are intended to be extreme scenarios on both sides of the spectrum. More than likely, each player is going to fall somewhere in the middle, but every now and then, they just so happen to come to fruition.
As one final note, I also try to take a look at what these scenarios would be from an individual standpoint and not necessarily what's best (or worst) for the team.
Best-case scenario: Thanks to a dose of good health, and more importantly, other pass rushing threats to take pressure off him, Matthews turns in the best season of his career. With Julius Peppers, Mike Daniels to worry about, Matthews sees far fewer double-teams than in seasons past and turns in a career-high, approaching—but just short of—20 sacks. Turning in a good performance in run defense and pass coverage as well, Matthews is named a first-team All-Pro selection for only the second time of his career.
Worst-case scenario: Although Matthews still has a good season, his statistical output is affected by others on the team playing at a similarly high level. As such, Matthews can only come up with single-digit sacks because guys like Peppers and Daniels are beating him to the quarterback. He's not bad by any means, but it appears as if Matthews may have hit his peak early in his career and can't seem to find the same success he had in 2010 and 2012.
Best-case scenario: Peppers is precisely what the Packers defense needed. He puts up statistics generally on par with the rest of his career: playing all 16 games, getting double-digit sacks and a handful of forced fumbles, but more important is his impact on the unit as a whole. The Packers defense ranks as one of the best in the NFL thanks to the addition of Peppers, who fits the new "Elephant" position perfectly. Any concerns about him playing in a two-point stance or in space are unfounded. As usual, he's named to the Pro Bowl.
Worst-case scenario: Peppers shows flashes of his old brilliance, but by and large, he's a wasted free-agent signing by the Packers. There are moments the Packers appreciate his experience, but he's just not a good fit, partly because age seems to have caught up to him and partly because he's not a good fit as an outside linebacker, struggling to play in space. By season's end, Peppers is merely a part-time player, ending the season with the fewest amount of sacks he's had in years. There appears to be little hope for the Packers retaining him beyond 2014.
Best-case scenario: Entering his second year as an outside linebacker, Neal is more comfortable and more effective now that he no longer has to worry about playing on the defensive line. It also helps that he weighs the least of his professional career, allowing him to operate in space more smoothly. His production is affected by having to share time with Matthews, Peppers and Nick Perry, but Neal is still impressive, able to match his career-high five sacks last season. In addition to regular pressure on the quarterback, Neal holds his ground against the run, turning in his best season as a professional.
Worst-case scenario: With Matthews and Peppers receiving the majority of the playing time, Neal finds it difficult to carve out a role on defense. It's not as if Neal doesn't see playing time here and there on a rotational basis, but when Perry is gets healthy for basically the first time of his career, he starts taking away snaps from Neal too. Neal finishes the season with a handful of sacks, but his long-term future in Green Bay is in question with so many talented, young players emerging.
Best-case scenario: Finally healthy for an entire season, Perry starts to display the potential that the Packers saw in the 2012 first round draft pick. Despite the presence of Matthews, Peppers and Neal, Perry receives playing time as part of a regular and healthy rotation, making the most of his opportunities. With at least a half dozen sacks and seemingly a natural fit as an outside linebacker, Perry actually out-produces Peppers and Neal, setting himself up to be the long-term starter at the position.
Worst-case scenario: Things just can't seem to click for Perry. Even when he is healthy, he's marginally effective, and certainly not as good as those ahead of him on the depth chart. He might have a sack here or there, but he doesn't get as many as his playing time suggests he should. The younger players on the roster are out-performing Perry, perhaps signaling his final season in Green Bay. Really, only his first-round status keeps him on the roster for the 2014 season.
Best-case scenario: Despite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Khyri Thornton being selected ahead of him, Bradford ends up having the most promising season of any of the Packers rookies on defense. Even the presence of players like Matthews, Peppers, Neal and Perry can't keep Bradford off the field. He's not a starter, but the Packers simply figure out ways to get him involved, he's that effective. Whether it's using the "Psycho" package more often, or lining him up at inside linebacker or getting playing time ahead of Neal and Perry, Bradford gets regular playing time in addition to his special teams contributions. He has at least four sacks in his rookie season.
Worst-case scenario: In his first year, Bradford finds little playing time outside of special teams. Fortunately he's a good special teams player, but finds it difficult to earn playing time with so many talented veterans playing the same position on defense. There's reason to believe he'll have a far greater impact in future seasons, but Bradford's biggest contributions are a sack or two and a couple tackles during the regular season.
Best-case scenario: Mulumba appears easily more comfortable in his second year in the NFL, but unfortunately he's a victim of deep positional strength. It's a close call, but he gets one of the final roster spots on the 53-man roster, mainly on the strength of his special teams contributions. His playing time on defense comes sparingly, but the coaching staff can rest easily if forced to play Mulumba due to injury.
Worst-case scenario: Between the experienced veterans older than him, and the talented players younger than him, Mulumba just isn't good enough to make the Packers' regular-season roster for a second consecutive season. His play during the preseason expectedly pales in comparison to the likes of Matthews and company, but perhaps unexpectedly, he the rookies on the team out-perform Mulumba at every turn. Even fellow second-year player Nate Palmer seems to have improved while Mulumba just stayed the same. The Packers unfortunately have to part ways.
Best-case scenario: Good thing for Palmer he becomes a special-teams ace, because that's his ticket to a spot on the 53-man roster, perhaps the last player on the bubble to make it. Palmer also appears to have made major strides from Year 1 to Year 2 on defense, although he only gets regular-season playing time on defense only in case of injury. A strong preseason showing, along with a sack or two, convinces the Packers to keep Palmer in Green Bay for another go-around.
Worst-case scenario: Being a special-teams contributor is a blessing as well as a curse. The Packers consider giving Palmer another shot to stick around on special teams, but he can't get by on that unit alone. Simply put, the other young players on the team show more potential on defense, while special teams players are a dime a dozen. Palmer only makes it through training camp as long as the NFL's cutdown date to 75 players.
Best-case scenario: It takes time for Hubbard to get used to the speed and the intensity of the NFL as a rookie, especially as an underclassman declaring early. But the Packers find his potential too great to cut. After flashing from time to time in training camp and the preseason, the Packers include Hubbard on the 53-man roster. Regular-season playing time is rare for the Alabama product, but there's hope he can eventually fill an "Elephant" type of role for the Packers in future seasons.
Worst-case scenario: The same concerns observers had about Hubbard in college follow him to the NFL. Not only does he display a sense of entitlement and inflated sense of self, he gives inconsistent effort on the football field. He might flash during training camp, but not nearly enough to justify keeping on the roster. When Hubbard isn't flashing potential, he's getting beat by those players showing more hustle and effort. The waiver wire is his ultimate destination.
Best-case scenario: Despite not coming from a name-brand program like Hubbard, it's Elliott that displays greater potential. He, too, encounters a learning curve but after a surprisingly impressive month of August, the Packers come away convinced they have to somehow keep him in Green Bay. An invitation to the practice squad comes Elliot's way.
Worst-case scenario: Elliott displays raw potential, but unfortuantely for him, it's simply too raw for the NFL. There might be a place for Elliot in the Canadian Football League or somewhere else, but he's overmatched compared to the caliber of talent he faces in practice every day. The Packers have to release Elliott before camp is over.
Next in the series is the inside linebackers.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor at Cheesehead TV and its "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email email@example.com.
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