Note: This is the seventh in a series of positional stories focused on the big story lines entering Week 1 of the NFL season.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – In 2018, with Jake Ryan having suffered a torn ACL in practice, the Green Bay Packers acquired third-year linebacker Antonio Morrison in a trade with the Colts.
In 2019, with Oren Burks out with a partially torn pectoral, the Packers acquired fourth-year linebacker B.J. Goodson in a trade with the Giants.
In 2020, the Packers took a flier on seventh-year linebacker Christian Kirksey, who was coming off two injury-plagued seasons following two big-time seasons with Cleveland.
Good thing this isn’t baseball.
General manager Brian Gutekunst took another swing at the perennially undermanned position by signing sixth-year linebacker De’Vondre Campbell in June. Only time will tell whether Campbell will be a hit, but at least Gutekunst appears to have made solid contact.
In Campbell’s first five seasons – four with Atlanta as a fourth-round pick in 2016 and last year with Arizona – he started 70 games. He’s topped 90 tackles in each of his last four seasons. He’s added three interceptions, 19 passes defensed, six forced fumbles, 25 tackles for losses and 7.5 sacks.
Campbell figures to be in the starting lineup alongside up-and-coming Krys Barnes on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints and might even be the every-down player at inside linebacker.
“He’s a pretty good looking specimen. He’s tall and long and he can cover,” coach Matt LaFleur, who was with Campbell in Atlanta in 2015 and 2016, said recently. “He’s got great instincts, first and foremost, which is tough to coach. But he’s really good in coverage as a zoning ‘backer, reading the quarterback’s eyes. When given the opportunities to pressure, he’s very slippery. He can get skinny and get around linemen. And he’s a great tackler. So, I really am excited with the addition of De’Vondre. Just think that he’s going to bring a different dynamic to our defense.”
LaFleur’s note on tackling is worth considering. In five seasons, Campbell has made 462 tackles (official stats) and missed 32 (Pro Football Focus). That’s 14.4 tackles per miss. Last year, Kirksey had 77 tackles and 10 misses (7.7 per miss).
At 6-foot-4, Campbell’s length gives him an edge in the passing game. While he might lack the short-area quickness to handle someone like the Saints’ Alvin Kamara out of the backfield, his height is an obvious asset against tight ends such as promising second-year player Adam Trautman.
The Packers were one of the top teams against opposing tight ends last season, ranking sixth in receptions, seventh in yards and seventh in receiving touchdowns. However, in the NFC Championship Game, Bucs tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate combined for four receptions for 48 yards and one touchdown. During the regular-season loss at Tampa Bay, Gronkowski had five catches for 78 yards, including a touchdown just before halftime. In the loss at Indianapolis, Colts tight ends scored two touchdowns.
“We have a lot of really good tight ends in this league so, personally, I feel like it’s just a skill-set thing,” Campbell said during camp. “The league is changing as a whole. You have a lot of these tight ends that are basically extra wide receivers on the field. Just being able to match up with them, I feel like I bring the size and the speed that allows me to be able to match up rather than putting a safety on them. Sometimes, even if you have a really good coverage safety, most tight ends can overpower them due to size and strength difference. I feel like that’s something that’s a very big part of my game.”