De'Vondre Campbell thriving as 'Batman' in Packers' defense

Sixth-year linebacker has taken his game to another level in Green Bay

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LB De'Vondre Campbell

GREEN BAY – De'Vondre Campbell has always done what's asked of him on the football field in the name of team.

Tackle a running back in space? Of course.

Spy the quarterback? Let's do it.

Cover a receiver man-to-man? Not a problem.

The 6-foot-3, 232-pound linebacker's willingness to play anywhere, and do anything, made him a valued contributor in Atlanta and Arizona through his five seasons in the NFL.

But it wasn't until Campbell signed with the Packers in June that his eyes widened to the possibilities of something more, in a Green Bay defense that's not only tailored to the linebacker position but also accentuates Campbell's strengths.

"When I got the playbook, I was like, this is a lot different than what I'm used to. My role is a lot different," Campbell said. "I'm actually having the opportunity to be 'the man.'

"That's something that I always knew I could do. I just always played within the scheme that I was in."

Through seven games, Campbell has been one of the NFL's top offseason signings. Serving as Green Bay's every-down linebacker, the 28-year-old is currently fifth in NFL tackles (67) with two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

Both forced fumbles came during Sunday's 24-10 win over Washington, the first of which playing a vital role in the defense's huge fourth-and-goal stand in the third quarter.

Campbell's Pro Bowl-caliber play this season, and his impeccable track record of durability (he's played in 72 consecutive regular-season games), have left everyone from Head Coach Matt LaFleur to reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers scratching their heads on how this guy was available when General Manager Brian Gutekunst signed Campbell on June 9.

That answer is complex but one major misconception is Campbell didn't have options. He had several but stayed patient in a bear market and bided his time until the right situation presented itself.

The Packers were persistent and their offer came with an enticing bonus – a chance for Campbell to reunite with LaFleur. The two previously forged a friendship during their time together in Atlanta, where Campbell started his career in 2016 while LaFleur was the team's quarterbacks coach.

"My final decision to come here really came down to just I wanted to be on a winning team," Campbell said. "I definitely had other offers but I wanted to be a part of a winning organization and be able to showcase what I can do.

"That was one of my ultimate decisions on top of the fact of the relationship I had with Coach LaFleur prior. It made it a pretty easy decision once everything boiled down."

The proliferation of spread offenses throughout the NFL has had a precarious effect on inside linebackers, with more and more defenses favoring a box safety over a second linebacker on passing downs in recent years.

The Packers went that direction, too, with Morgan Burnett, Adrian Amos and Raven Greene all playing as a hybrid safety alongside a traditional inside linebacker in sub-packages.

LaFleur's hiring of Joe Barry as defensive coordinator this offseason marked a return to linebacker normalcy in Green Bay. While the team's "Penny" defense incorporates only a single inside linebacker, the Packers are deploying a traditional nickel defense more often under Barry.

Campbell's football IQ, tackling and sideline-to-sideline speed have played a role in that. Even if the NFL didn't add a 17th regular-season game, Campbell would still be on pace for a career high in tackles this season.

"The thing you love about him is his approach and his attitude. Very steady guy, very consistent guy," said Rodgers of Campbell on Tuesday. "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 has played a lot of football – more than 9,000 defensive snaps since entering the NFL as a fourth-round pick out of Minnesota – but he's often been more of a role player than a featured playmaker.

In 2016, for example, Campbell was drafted behind hybrid safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones. Those two made the PFWA All-Rookie Team and then the Pro Bowl in 2017 before their careers were slowed by injuries.

Campbell still found his niche and enjoyed a career year with the Falcons in 2019, recording 129 tackles, two interceptions and two sacks. It produced a one-year deal in free agency with the Arizona Cardinals, where he complemented another established linebacker in Jordan Hicks.

The Packers have been looking for stability at inside linebacker since Blake Martinez's departure in free agency after the 2019 season. A year ago, Green Bay leaned on Amos' versatility and a rotation of undrafted rookie Krys Barnes, Christian Kirksey, Oren Burks, Ty Summers and Kamal Martin.

"I've always kind of been the Robin to someday else's Batman in everybody else's scheme," Campbell told packers.com earlier this month. "I've always felt like I've been a good player, but now I'm actually having the opportunity to showcase my talent. So, I just really appreciate the Packers for giving me the opportunity."

Coming off his third game this season with 10-plus tackles, Campbell now guides Green Bay's defense into a showdown Thursday night against his former team in Arizona. With Barry not making the trip due to a positive COVID test, Campbell's responsibilities as the communicator on defense will be paramount against the Cardinals.

Green Bay's plan calls for defensive backs coach/passing game coordinator Jerry Gray to call the plays with inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti relaying them to Campbell on the field.

Arizona, led by former No. 1 pick Kyler Murray, is off to its best start in 47 years at 7-0. Murray has completed 73.5% of his passes this season for 2,002 yards and 17 touchdowns. Only the injured Russell Wilson has a higher passer rating than Murray's 116.8.

"You're just dealing with a winner," Campbell said. "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. It's definitely going to be a challenge for us this Thursday."

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