The Packers have come a long way since they had an all-pro inside linebacker. Decades, actually.
This position, for the most part, isn’t particularly emphasized by the Packers. They tried a few mid-round picks and signed the occasional stomper in the hope that one of them would catch one.
Last year, it finally did.
Long after the 2021 free agency season began, and a few months after the draft, on June 10, the Packers signed Devon der Campbell. A former 4th-round pick, Campbell was solid but unremarkable during his time with the Falcons and Cardinals. His games in Green Bay were rarely played with much fanfare, but Joe Barry’s plan played to his advantage, and he responded with an all-pro season.
Campbell was the first full-time industry linebacker the Packers had since Ray Nitschke in 1966…that was 27 years before Campbell was born.
When the Packers re-signed Campbell earlier in the offseason, their linebacker problem appeared to have been resolved.
But the Packers haven’t finished building their interior linebacker.
They shocked the draftniks when they selected interior linebacker Quay Walker with the 22nd overall pick. Most draft analysts (that is, those not paid to scouts by NFL teams) get Walker late, and some even list him as a Day 3 prospect.
But the Packers like Walker’s physical ability. Campbell’s only notable measurable height and speed on the combine. Walker is better in both areas…and far better in almost every other measurable area.In short, Walker (with RAS score 9.66) is one of the best athletes to have tested an interior linebacker and ranks in the top 3.5 percent of interior linebacker prospects in joint history.
The Packers now have two massive inside linebackers with side-to-side speed and ability to cover.
This is something the team has never had.
Before Campbell came, they ran with Christian Kirksey and Chris Barnes, who I would best describe as “useful.”
Before that, they relied on Blake Martinez, who had been present in the middle but lacked the range of Campbell and Walker and had players like BJ Goodson and Jack Ryan lined up next to him.
You could argue that Klay Matthews might be better off as an inside linebacker, but out of desperation, he was placed next to Nate Palmer.
In the years leading up to that, AJ Hawk played admirably in the mid lane. But despite his consistency, he never showed the dynamic ability we saw from De’Vondre Campbell last year. Over the years, his running mates have included the likes of Sam Barrington, Brad Jones and Desmond Bishop. Bishop may have been Hawke’s best partner in Green Bay, but he’s a slugger and doesn’t have the range that Campbell and Walker bring.
In terms of ground coverage, Nick Barnett may be the closest the Packers have come to these guys in a while, but his 4.67 pace is still significantly lower than either Campbell (4.58) or Walker (4.52). Barnett is a great forward who can go from side to side but he comes at the end of a 4-3 and even if you put him on the same level as Campbell the Packers don’t have a pair like that . We have to go back to Favre’s early days before we can find a defense with two inside linebackers. When we do, we find groups like Johnny Holland, George Koonce, and Brian Noble. These are good linebackers.
But they’re not All Pro stuff like De’Vondre Campbell, or athletic freaks like Walker.
If you want to delve into the Dark Ages, you’ll find names like Randy Scott, John Dorsey (who was more accomplished off the court than on the court), George Cumby, Rich Wingo and Ed O’Neill (though not The Married Child). The one in — that guy actually signed with the Steelers).
If you keep digging, you’re all the way back to the Packers’ last full-time linebacker in the industry: Renichick, who was one of the boys (and more athletic than he got the honor). But, like Barnett, he’s a center linebacker, and the Packers don’t have two such players. It was a different defense and a different game.
Campbell and Walker are perfect for the evolution of this game: They can widen the run gap, chase corners, get back into coverage, and even blitz.
This will allow the Packers to be more flexible in their base defense, with fewer opportunities for miscommunication and less need for substitutions that will make it difficult for opponents to play or plan around them.
You can’t plan around two top athletes who can do everything.
This has never been the case with the Packers.
Now they do.
I can’t wait to see the results.