GREEN BAY, Wis. – “K1, he’s a different animal.”
De’Vondre Campbell would know.
In 2019, while Campbell was a starting linebacker for Atlanta, Kyler Murray was in his rookie season as the Arizona Cardinals’ starting quarterback. In Week 6, Murray threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-33 victory over Campbell’s Falcons.
In 2020, Campbell and Murray were teammates.
In 2021, they’ll be on different sidelines for Thursday’s showdown between the Packers and Cardinals. Campbell is arguably the defensive MVP for Green Bay, which is 6-1 and winners of six straight. Murray is arguably the NFL MVP in leading the Cardinals to their first 7-0 start in almost 50 years.
Murray’s sporting career would follow a similar path as that of his father, Kevin. In 1982, Kevin Murray was drafted in the 11th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. A year later, he shifted his attention to football.
At Allen (Texas) High School, Kyler Murray went 42-0 as the starter and won three state championships. He was also a star on the baseball field, becoming the first player ever selected to the Under Armour All-America Football Game as well as the Under Armour All-American Baseball Game.
Murray started his collegiate career at Texas A&M but transferred after his true freshman year of 2015. Landing at Oklahoma, he played both sports. In June 2018, he was the No. 9 overall pick of the MLB draft by the Oakland A’s. With a signing bonus of more than $4 million, Murray’s plan was to start his professional baseball career in Spring 2019. Instead, he won the Heisman Trophy in 2018 by throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns and rushing for 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 11.6 yards per passing attempt set a national record, and he became the first player in FBS history to average 300 passing yards and 60 rushing yards.
The Cardinals made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft.
“Really gifted football player, smart guy,” Campbell said. “Extremely, extremely competitive. You’ve got to realize you’re dealing with a guy that’s not really used to losing, dating all the way back to high school. You’re just dealing with a winner. He’s a winner at heart. And you can see it in the way he plays. He’s just super-competitive, a really good football player.”
Murray won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2019, when he accounted for 4,266 yards and 24 touchdowns, then took a huge jump in 2020, when he accounted for 4,790 yards and 37 touchdowns to earn Pro Bowl honors.
This year, surrounded by a star-studded cast of skill-position players, he has become a dominant passer and relied much less frequently on his legs. He leads the NFL with a 73.5 percent completion rate and is second with a 116.8 passer rating and 20 total touchdowns. He’s No. 1 in the NFL with five games of 70 percent completion rates and six games with 100-plus passer ratings.
Murray is a big play waiting to happen. This year, he’s second in 25-yard completions. Last year, he was fifth in 25-yard rushes.
“Probably the biggest stride he’s made is being patient and understanding that everybody on the pro level is good,” Campbell said. “You aren’t the best player on the field all the time. Everybody’s good. If things don’t go your way immediately, you can’t get frustrated, you can’t lose confidence. I don’t think he’s ever going to lose confidence but that’s the biggest stride I’ve seen him take over the course of playing against him from his rookie year to playing with him last year – just being able to see him take that step of confidence and being patient with himself and everybody around him.”
Meanwhile, in Year 6, Campbell is in the midst of his best NFL season. He leads the Packers with 67 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Campbell and Colts All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard are the only players in the NFL with two interceptions, three passes defensed and two forced fumbles. Campbell is fifth in the NFL with 67 tackles and second with 44 solo stops. Of the top 15 players in tackles, he’s the only player with two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
“Always respected him as a player, especially Atlanta,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Big, rangy guy who could play a number of spots. Could play the line of scrimmage and rush, could cover running backs out of the backfield, good blitzer. The thing you love about him is his approach and his attitude. Very steady guy, very consistent guy. As he’s made plays, that allows you the opportunity to have a greater leadership responsibility and more opportunities to speak up. I think guys have appreciated the way he’s responded.”
Campbell’s had only one season of 100-plus tackles. That was 2019, when he set personal bests with 129 tackles and three forced fumbles with the Falcons. After recording 99 tackles with Arizona last year, Campbell remained a free agent deep into June. The Packers signed him during the mandatory minicamp and wound up with the true three-down linebacker they’d lacked for years. He’s on pace for 165 tackles.
Blake Martinez made a lot of tackles with the Packers, too, but he never played this caliber of football. According to Sports Info Solutions, Campbell is allowing 3.8 yards per target in the passing game and his average tackle has come 1.6 yards downfield. Of the 14 linebackers with at least 47 tackles, Campbell ranks No. 1 in both of those categories.
Campbell’s career marks are 5.9 yards per target and 2.5 yards per target. So, what’s changed? What about this scheme has brought the best out of the 28-year-old?
“Honestly, to get straight to the point, I’ve played in systems where linebackers are almost like defensive backs,” Campbell said. “You’re running with wide receivers all the time, you’re playing in man coverage. That’s something I can do – I’m very good at it – but this system just allows linebackers to be linebackers and defensive backs to be defensive backs, if that makes sense. That’s basically the biggest difference. It allows a linebacker to be a linebacker and make plays within the box area.”
Campbell will have a tall task trying to contain his former teammate. The Packers gave up almost 100 rushing yards last week to Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke. Heinicke is an athletic quarterback but, like Campbell said, Murray is a different animal. Murray has game-breaking speed and the arm and command to take advantage of a deep and diverse group of targets in the passing game.
“His scrambling ability is just a little bit different than the guys we’ve played over the past two weeks,” Campbell said. “I got to practice against him every day last year for a year straight, so I understand what type of player he is and I understand what we’re going up against. We just have to come up with a really good plan to contain him. With a player like that, you can’t stop him. You just have to try to contain him.”