GREEN BAY – De'Vondre Campbell was a rookie linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons, just getting his feet wet in the NFL, the first time he met Matt LaFleur back in 2016.
LaFleur, the Falcons' second-year quarterbacks coach at the time, already was established as one of the brightest young offensive minds in the league and a trusted developer of QBs.
In a sport where daily hustle and bustle can often lead to a curtain forming between the offense and defense, one might have expected the future Packers head coach to focus on his position and nothing more.
Instead, LaFleur made it a point almost every day to walk over and talk with Campbell and other members of Atlanta's defense. And those interactions are something Campbell, the Packers' latest veteran acquisition, never forgot about.
"I saw him every day. I spoke to him every day," said Campbell, now entering his sixth NFL season. "So, coming here was a pretty easy decision because I already knew who he was. I know the kind of guy he is, what kind of guys he wants on his team. He's a character guy and that goes a long way for me."
Campbell, who turns 28 next Thursday, has been one of the league's most durable inside linebackers since he was drafted in the fourth round out of Minnesota in 2016. He has one of the longest games-played streaks among linebackers, having made 70 consecutive appearances (including playoffs) dating back to Week 16 of his rookie year.
It was that same year Campbell and LaFleur were members of a Falcons team that advanced to Super Bowl LI. While LaFleur left after that season to become the Los Angeles Rams' offensive coordinator, Campbell proceeded to start 46 of the 50 games he played for Atlanta over the next three seasons.
Over that time, the 6-foot-4, 232-pound linebacker would amass 462 tackles (25 for a loss), 7½ sacks and three interceptions. He led the Falcons with 129 tackles in 2019 before signing with Arizona as an unrestricted free agent last March.
A rangy athlete with some coverage chops, Campbell started all 16 games he played for the Cardinals last year, leading the defense with 99 tackles and a career-high seven TFLs.
Arizona chose to make sweeping changes to its defense this offseason, which led to Campbell again hitting the free-agent market. He stayed patient, while training in Minnesota, until the call finally came from Green Bay earlier this month.
"I've really been … waiting for the right opportunity and the right opportunity came, and I jumped on it," Campbell said.
The Packers made a shift with their own defense this offseason when LaFleur tabbed Joe Barry to replace Mike Pettine as coordinator. A linebacker coach by trade, Barry has a lot of intriguing players to work with in Krys Barnes, Kamal Martin, Ty Summers, Oren Burks and rookie Isaiah McDuffie.
One thing Green Bay was lacking, however, was experience after Christian Kirksey was released in March. For that reason, General Manager Brian Gutekunst hinted after the 2021 NFL Draft that the Packers would explore bringing in an established veteran to complement a very young room.
In Campbell's case, his 4,202 NFL defensive snaps played are nearly four times more than the rest of the Packers' inside linebackers combined (1,062).
"He's a big long guy that can run, LaFleur said. "Definitely brings a different dynamic to that room in his ability to just cover, whether it's tight ends or backs. And we think he's a really versatile player. I think he's a great person first and foremost, which I think is so important for our team."
What quickly stands out about Campbell is his height. At 6-4, he could be the tallest inside linebacker Green Bay has featured on defense this century. That size not only benefits Campbell in coverage but also makes him dangerous in blitz packages.
He's contributed on at least two sacks in each of the past four seasons.
"Most linemen are 6-4, 6-5 and so am I," Campbell said. "When they're trying to climb on me, I can use my length to keep them away from me and try to find the ball. Also, when I'm in coverage against tight ends, most of them are bigger guys. Usually, it's a mismatch if a safety or a corner is on them. It's not really a mismatch with me because I can match up with them."
Campbell said it was important for him to sign before NFL offseason programs broke for the summer, because it allowed him to start diving in the playbook over these next six weeks.
Once the team returns at the end of July, Campbell is eager to show what he has to offer to a deep Packers defense with high expectations for 2021.
"I was just really excited for the opportunity, to come to such an historic franchise and be able to play on a solid defense," Campbell said.
"I feel like we have some really good players on the front and back end. We got some good young linebackers. For me, my job is to try to come in and learn the defense as quickly as I can and try to pass along as much of my knowledge as I can."