For as intelligent and evidently all-knowing as Aaron Rodgers may be, the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback isn’t too sure just what De’Vondre Campbell was still doing on the market in June.
On the second day of the team’s mandatory minicamp slate, the linebacker inked a one-year deal to join the Packers’ defense. He entered a room commandeered by Krys Barnes, an undrafted free agent whose rise to prominence last season was one of the more intriguing stories. Behind him? Kamal Martin, Oren Burks and Ty Summers; they had released Christian Kirksey in February.
Considering the state of the room, Campbell was something of a godsend.
“How the hell is this guy on the street?” Said Rodgers on Sunday, recalling a conversation he had with Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the sideline during the Packers’ win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
“It was a great pickup by our personnel folks.”
They’re (mostly) the same personnel folks who had previously invested in the likes of Antonio Morrison, Korey Toomer, B.J. Goodson and Kirksey. Even the Packers’ fourth-round investment in Blake Martinez, who they let walk in free agency in the spring of 2020, hadn’t provided them with the results they were hoping for.
Finally, the Packers may have struck gold in Campbell. But the fact of the matter is that he never should’ve been available in the first place.
Campbell, taken 16 spots ahead of Martinez by the Atlanta Falcons in that same draft, hadn’t missed a game since his rookie season. After appearing in 11 games during the 2016 campaign, Campbell played in all 53 games over the course of the next three years — regular-season and playoffs included — while starting 49 of them. He maintained that same level of reliability and durability during the lone year he spent with the Arizona Cardinals.
He had a high-volume number of tackles and had demonstrated the ability to match up with tight ends and even some slot wide receivers.
Take it from Rodgers: “He can run, he’s a great tackler, he’s around the ball all the time, he’s a great locker room guy.”
Rodgers admitted that he’s baffled the Packers were able to stumble upon him, but thankful nonetheless. The opportunity hasn’t been too much for Campbell to corral, even with the quick turnaround between minicamp and the start of training camp by the end of July. The seemingly monstrous task of mastering the defensive playbook awaited him, and yet, he’s the unit’s primary communicator and he’s been arguably the best defensive player for the Packers through five weeks.
In that same span, he leads the team in tackles with 47, interceptions with two and he’s tied for second with three defended passes. He was a prized early-summer acquisition that has given the Packers more than they bargained for.
“He was all over the field,” head coach Matt LaFleur said last Monday after the win over the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers. Campbell played 47 snaps in the box as a traditional middle linebacker, but also aligned himself as an outside linebacker for three snaps and tallied another 10 in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. Positional flexibility to that extent has helped lessen the blow of not having Barnes, who missed most of the last two games with a concussion.
And thankfully, for the Packers, Campbell’s ability to stick with running backs — whether out of the backfield, out wide or in the slot — as well as tight ends is what made him such an alluring addition. He’s been what they had hoped for against the run, but staying true to what he was advertised as in regards to his coverage has been a welcomed surprise for a defense that could certainly use the reinforcement at the second level.
“He’s wearing a lot of hats for us,” LaFleur said. “He’s obviously the guy communicating out there, but he’s in all those different personnel groupings and asked to fill multiple responsibilities. We’re lucky we have him, he’s definitely been productive but he’s also been a great asset to our locker room.”
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There was a point in the third quarter against the Bengals where Campbell exited the game with a shoulder injury, leaving Barnes to relay the communications to the rest of the defense. It wasn’t foreign territory for Barnes considering it was a responsibility he had for most of his rookie year.
Campbell would return with a minute left in the third quarter, however, and tally five tackles in the fourth quarter alone. On the Bengals’ first play of the overtime period, Joe Burrow was expecting Tyler Boyd to cut back into the middle of the field. Instead, he essentially gift-wrapped the ball for Campbell, who returned his interception 13 yards and into the red zone to position the Packers for a game-winning field goal attempt.
“I think as he continues to make plays, his leadership opportunities will continue to grow,” Rodgers said. “Guys listen to him; he’s leading the defense as far as he feels comfortable. That’s a guy that we’re really lucky to have.”
Sunday marked the third game in a row that Campbell leads the team in tackles. With the inclusion of Jaylon Smith, who arrived in Green Bay this past week following his release from the Dallas Cowboys, Campbell spearheads a transition period at middle linebacker. Campbell, Smith and sixth-round pick Isaiah McDuffie account for the new additions. It’s an unfamiliar group to how they looked a year ago at this time.
Regardless of Smith’s experience or pedigree as a former second-round pick, he won’t be eating into Campbell’s snaps — he’s the Packers’ undisputed No. 1 linebacker. He was a healthy scratch against the Bengals, simply due to the fact that he had been in Green Bay for two days with little time to hone in on his job description. But he’ll have his fair share of snaps under defensive coordinator Joe Barry, whose tendency to deploy three middle linebackers in a single instance has been made apparent in his short time at the helm.