Packers undrafted rookies Elliott, Pennel making nicknames for themselves
Though Mike Pennel (pictured) is far from a finished product, and, like fellow rising Packers defensive standout Jayrone Elliott, has work to do to make Green Bay's 53-man roster, he is starting to make a name for himself lately.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — On the Green Bay Packers official roster, they’re listed as outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott and nose tackle Mike Pennel. Among the veterans at their positions, though, they’re now known as Sackmaster and Baby Haynesworth.
It’s been that type of week for the Packers’ top two undrafted rookie free agents.
Pennel drew praise from B.J. Raji for showing "overpowering strength" on an every-play basis and from defensive line coach Mike Trgovac for showing "good awareness" to pick up a sack in Green Bay’s second preseason game.
Elliott accomplished something that Dom Capers has never seen in the defensive coordinator’s 28 years in the NFL: picking up three sacks (and a forced fumble) in a span of four plays. With a feat that impressive, it did more than just get Capers’ attention.
"It’s just fun to joke around with Clay (Matthews) and Pep (Julius Peppers), because you know Peppers never really talks to anybody," Elliott said.
Peppers is certainly the quiet type, but Elliott’s remarkable performance changed a lot of things about his relationship with the eight-time Pro Bowl selection, as well as with Matthews.
"It was just crazy, because usually you walk around and they’d be like ‘What’s up, 91?’" Elliott said, referring to his jersey number.
Now they know Elliott’s name and anointed him with the "Sackmaster" nickname.
It wasn’t just teammates who were wowed by Elliott’s huge game. He was so good that even those closest to him in his personal life might have gotten him confused with the player who’s been the Packers’ best sackmaster the past five years.
"A bunch of family members going crazy thinking I’m freakin’ Clay Matthews," Elliott said with a smile.
It was a moment that can never be taken away from Elliott. It might be the moment that launches a successful NFL career for the former University of Toledo star.
"I heard he’s starting this weekend in front of me," Matthews said.
The actual truth is that Elliott still has work to do in order to make Green Bay’s 53-man roster, and he knows it. A three-sacks-in-four-plays preseason game is great and all, but if Elliott falls apart in the final week of training camp and he gets released at the final cutdown, it’ll be quickly forgotten.
"He can’t rest on that, he can’t feel as though he’s arrived or he’s done enough," linebackers coach Winston Moss said. "He has to take the opportunity that he created from this past game and be able to use that to launch him to bigger and better things.
"He can’t take a step back now. He’s already established a standard. And so from that standard he’s going to have to stay on top of his ability to produce like that or they’re going to hold him accountable to that. Because if he continues to do it, it’s a confirmation. If he doesn’t do it, they’re going to say, ‘ahh,’ and there’s going to be questions."
In Tuesday’s practice, Elliott graduated from being a scout-team defensive player working inside the Don Hutson Center against the starting offense to a player working with the top defensive units outside on Ray Nitschke Field against the scout-team offense.
That’s one surefire way to show that Moss and the Packers are becoming big believers in Elliott. But while Moss said that Elliott "really believes in himself" and "believes he can be an impact player," the coach would only go so far as to call it a "good start" for the 22-year-old. That type of attitude from the coaching staff lines up well with how Elliott is approaching it himself.
"You can’t get too high, can’t get too low," Elliott said. "That (the three sacks) was just like five minutes. It was great to finally make some plays, but at the same time, I can’t let that affect my mindset because I still have to go out there and compete against some great guys out here."
Pennel is similar in some ways to Elliott. He, too, is an outgoing, confident, relatively unknown young player who wasn’t drafted yet has found ways to stand out in training camp.
Pennel has asked all of the right questions to Raji and Trgovac. Bouncing around from Scottsdale Community College to Arizona State to Colorado State-Pueblo, he never had much stability in one place for very long. But Raji and Green Bay’s defensive line group made him feel at home right away, and that gave Pennel the opening he hoped for to learn from those who’ve done it — or coached it — on the professional level for many years.
"A lot of young guys, you give ’em advice and sometimes they don’t use it," Raji said. "But Mike, every time you help him he tries to implement it into what he’s doing."
At 6-foot-4 and 332 pounds, Pennel loves playing nose tackle. However, he knew there was a lot to learn about playing that spot in the NFL. Though he’s far from a finished product, and, like Elliott, has work to do to make the Packers’ 53-man roster, Pennel started figuring it out recently.
"Through minicamp and OTAs, we weren’t padded and it was so much technique where I was like, ‘man, I just want to bull rush, I want to bull rush,’" Pennel said. "When we got into pads the first couple of days where I saw, OK, I can use this to my advantage. When we go through practice so many times, it just starts clicking. I’d have to say when we started getting the pads on, first couple practices weren’t too pretty, but then I just started getting it. Just started playing good technique, started getting positive feedback from the coaches."
Trgovac described Pennel as "an effort player" and "a big guy with some movement." What Raji sees in Pennel is the early makings of Albert Haynesworth, who in 2007 and 2008 was one of the NFL’s best defensive players.
"He’s just that build, that tenacity, that overpowering strength that he has," Raji said before revealing the "Baby Haynesworth" nickname. "He definitely has a great chance to be a very good player in this league."
Even when Raji and Trgovac aren’t telling him just the good things that he’s doing, it’s still an improvement on what his mother (who Pennel said is his "best friend") is telling him on one of their two daily phone calls.
"She’s always giving me the harshest feedback possible of how I played," Pennel said. "’You left this many plays out there, you could’ve done more.’ I love talking to my mom."
The sack that Pennel picked up in St. Louis put him on some people’s maps, but like Elliott, the 23-year-old wants to be remembered for much more than a good preseason game.
"My goals are set so high that I don’t even see that as a milestone or a bench mark," Pennel said. "My first goal is to make the 53, and then after that it’s to contribute to the defense.
"Like my mom always told me, ‘you can’t relax when the pressure is on you.’ The pressure is on. We’re all fighting for a job. You can’t really take back and say ‘OK, I’ve done this,’ when you have bigger goals than that."
The Packers keep undrafted rookies for their active roster every year. It’s the route that key contributors such as Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Brandon Bostick and Jarrett Boykin took, among many others, and it’s a big reason why Pennel and Elliott chose Green Bay when several other offers were on the table.
Now, with a little more than one week until the 53-man roster is announced, the two most likely players to add their names to that list are Pennel and Elliott.
"If you’re able to contribute, they’re going to keep you here," Pennel said. "I hope that works out in my situation."