GREEN BAY — To understand just how difficult Vince Biegel’s rookie season was last year, you have to realize where it began.
In a wheelchair.
Not long after the Green Bay Packers took him at the top of the fourth round of the 2017 NFL draft — a dream-come-true moment for an in-state kid (Wisconsin Rapids) who grew up wearing Packers jerseys (Brett Favre’s No. 4 was his favorite) and starred at the University of Wisconsin — Biegel aggravated the Jones fracture he’d suffered during his senior year with the Badgers. It happened during the team’s post-draft rookie orientation camp, and not only did it require a second surgery to insert a screw into that right foot, the Packers’ medical staff recommended he have a screw put into his left foot to prevent a similar injury.
As a result, when the Packers’ veterans showed up for organized team activity practices — including outside linebacker Clay Matthews, one of the players Biegel had emulated growing up — the rookie couldn’t stand on his own two feet.
“Here I was, a rookie in the NFL, and I was meeting the Green Bay Packers – the team I had idolized my entire life. And I was meeting Clay, a guy I looked up to, in a wheelchair. Literally looking up to him,” Biegel said during an interview on ESPN Wisconsin’s “Wilde & Tausch” Wednesday morning. “That was a humbling experience for me.
“So I started down there, and I knew that I could only go up from there. That’s why I’m so excited about this upcoming season — to really get the bad taste out of my mouth from 2017 and really put a good stamp on the 2018 season and put together a season I know I can be proud of.”
To that end, Biegel has spent the past two months doing everything he can to hit the ground running when the Packers’ official offseason program kicks off Monday. He spent February working out at EXOS outside San Diego, where he prepped for the draft last year, then went north and spent March working out ProActive outside Los Angeles after Matthews invited him to join him, Aaron Rodgers, David Bakhtiari, Kenny Clark and Lance Kendricks there.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy admitted at the annual NFL Meetings last month that he wasn’t surprised that Biegel struggled last season after what he endured.
“He needs an offseason,” McCarthy said. “To have both feet operated on after the first week of being here, I knew it was going to be a long road for him. I look for him to make a jump.”
Since returning to Green Bay, Biegel has been working out inside the Lambeau Field while new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has been teaching his assistant coaches his scheme inside the CRIC practice facility. Biegel said he’s tried to get his hands on Pettine’s playbook — to no avail.
“I’ve been poking at some of the assistant coaches, asking for a playbook, but the NFL has strict regulations and rules on what they can and can’t do,” Biegel said. “I’m excited because I’ve heard nothing but positive things.”
The coaches, meanwhile, are hoping for nothing but positive things from Biegel. The foot surgeries forced him to miss the entire offseason — from OTAs to minicamp to training camp — and he opened the season on the physically unable to perform list, which forced him to miss the first six weeks.
He made his debut on Nov. 6 against Detroit and ended up playing in nine games, finishing with 13 tackles (eight solo), one tackle for loss, three quarterback pressures and one quarterback hit on defense while adding six tackles on special teams, tied for second-most on the team.
“My first game back was against Detroit on Monday Night Football. And leading up to that game – not a lot of people know this — I had two weeks of practice. The first week, we didn’t have any pads on. I was just running around in my helmet (and shorts). I hadn’t run around with guys since my college days at Wisconsin,” Biegel said. “So I had only one day of a padded practice before I played my first NFL game on Monday Night Football. One padded practice from college to the NFL. So that was a huge jump for me.
“I know my second year, going into it (with) the offseason preparation, being able to get into the system, is going to be huge for me. Because those are the reps you need as a rookie. And as a player in general. You need that — the stress on the body, the looks that you get, all the things that are thrown at you, the speed of the game changing from college. So to have an offseason like that, to be running around with the guys, building that camaraderie, being part of the team, to be able to see all the looks and be able to read and react — that’s all going to be huge for me.
“I’m excited. It’s going to be a game-changer for me.”
The Packers certainly hope so. They finished tied for 17th in the NFL with 37 sacks last season — the first time since 2011 that they had fewer than 40 sacks — and while they have invested heavily in Matthews and Perry, both have also battled injuries on an almost annual basis. Biegel is among the younger players — along with Kyler Fackrell, Reggie Gilbert, Chris Odom and any draft picks the team adds later this month — who’ll be expected to augment the edge pass rush.
“There’s some players behind (Matthews and Perry) that haven’t gotten a ton of opportunities, but we’re hoping to kind of see them take second and third-year jumps,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “I wouldn’t say that we’re lacking (there).”
Biegel is intent on proving Gutekunst right.
“I think people, they expect a rookie to kind of do what they did their senior year in college. But it’s not really like that,” Biegel said. “Your rookie season is truly a whirlwind. It’s like being a freshman in college all over again. It’s a new system, new head coaches, new teammates — everything is new, all the way to the facility, meals. Everything is new. That puts stress on you. You’re taking everything in and you’re reacting to everything as it comes. Your second season, you know what’s expected. You know what’s expected from the coaches, you know what’s expected from the playbook.
“To be honest, I’m grateful that (last year) happened to me because it truly humbled me and made me appreciate the game – to the fullest extent. When you play the game and you don’t have any injuries — like I had in college — you really don’t appreciate the small things. That’s what I’m really excited about this upcoming season.”