The Packers quietly signed Phillip Merling a few weeks after the Dolphins released the veteran defensive end. Based on what I read out of Miami, I was expecting the former Clemson star to be a cross between Jamal Reynolds and Justin Harrell. But after watching four Dolphins games from last season, I’m feeling better about this acquisition.
Don’t get me wrong, Merling is nothing special. He started Miami’s opener at right defensive end, but after jumping offsides on his first play and falling to the ground untouched on his second, he saw only sporadic action the rest of the day. What I saw in that game, and in the other three I watched, was a decent rotational defensive lineman. Merling did an adequate job versus the run when he kept his pad level low, but for some reason he tended to rise off the snap. That’s something defensive line coach Mike Trgovac will obviously be focusing on all summer. As a pass rusher, the 27-year-old didn’t get much pressure on the quarterback, but he did work hard and at least managed to push some guards and centers around a bit.
Merling blew out his Achilles’ tendon in July 2010, so he was only 13 months removed from the injury when he lined up against the New England Patriots to open last season. Just out of curiosity, I wanted to see how he looked prior to the devastating injury. I decided to watch a few games from 2009 (thanks Game Rewind). I can’t say that Merling played all that much better, but he was definitely a half-step quicker. That enabled him to be slightly more disruptive – both against the run and the pass. To put it simply, the player I saw in ’09 was better than C.J. Wilson, Jarius Wynn, Howard Green and Mike Neal. Of course, whether Merling can ever be that player again remains to be seen.
I wish I could’ve seen Merling at last week’s minicamp. Not that how a player looks in shorts means a whole lot, but it would’ve been interesting to see what kind of shape he was in, how he was moving and how much effort he was putting forth. His work ethic – or lack thereof – was one of the reasons Miami gave up on him. If that’s still an issue, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Merling released before training camp even starts. Thompson isn’t going to waste a valuable roster spot on a lazy veteran – not when there are so many hungry young players looking to make the team.
Assuming what I saw last season is what I’ll see in training camp, I give Merling a better than 50/50 chance of making the final roster. B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and second-round pick Jerel Worthy are locks to be around in early September, and if healthy, so is fourth-round pick Mike Daniels. That leaves Merling to battle it out with Wilson, Wynn, Lawrence Guy, Daniel Muir and Johnny Jones for what will probably be two spots. Even if he’s no better than he was a year ago, I would give Merling the clear edge over Wynn, Muir and Jones. Wilson is a very similar player, and since he’s younger and cheaper, I think he’ll survive for another season. That means it could ultimately come down to Merling and Guy, a second-year player from Arizona State who missed his entire rookie season with a concussion.
Here’s what one scout service said about Merling four years ago: “Compares to Justin Tuck of the Giants. Both defensive ends will make a nice living coming off the edge. They have impressive size, though Merling is best playing on the move to utilize a sudden initial step to slip past blocks. He is not a good stack-and-control type and must do a better job of protecting himself from low blocks, but he is quick to provide outside run containment and shows a quick swim-and-spin move that generally gets him into the backfield to pressure the pocket. He won’t read and react in an instant, but has closing speed to seal the deal, even in long pursuit, once he locates the ball. He has to improve his lower-body strength, but there is enough athletic ability there to get by as his body continues to mature.”
From being compared to one of the league’s premier all-around defensive linemen to having to battle the likes of Wilson, Wynn and Guy for a roster spot, life in the pros hasn’t been kind to Merling. That said, he still has enough left in the tank to extend his career. If he’s willing to work hard – something he was criticized for not always doing in Miami – there’s a chance this below-the-radar signing in the winter will pay dividends for the Packers in the fall. That’s more than I ever expected prior to turning on my computer and watching a half-dozen Dolphins games last week.