After the year-long defensive meltdown that the Green Bay Packers endured last season, the organization vowed to reassess their scheme and refocus their players on the fundamentals of tackling. It was painfully obvious, however, that personnel changes were in order as well. The organization acknowledged as much, targeting defense with their first six picks of the 2012 Draft and bringing in several defensive veteran free agents to compete for depth.
The team will likely begin this season with a new starter at outside linebacker and at safety. After yet another season of sub-par play (-3.1) and minimal impact (zero turnover plays) from A.J. Hawk, the Packers may finally be ready for a new face at inside linebacker as well. Hawk’s would-be replacement is our Secret Superstar: D.J. Smith.
As a rookie, Smith was one of the rare bright spots (+5.7) on last years’ dismal defense. His four-game stint late in the season showcased a play-making ability the Packers have been missing from Hawk–who has averaged just 1.8 sacks, 1.3 INT’s, and 0.3 FF per season–over the past six years.
Too Short for the NFL?
Despite a prolific four-year career at Appalachian State where Smith amassed 525 tackles and helped deliver a National Championship, most scouts questioned whether he could make it at the next level. Short-armed and generously listed at only 5’11”, he just didn’t look the part of an NFL linebacker. There were concerns about his ability to see the field in coverage and to find the ball inside on runs.
When the Packers picked him up in the sixth round of the 2010 Draft, many analysts saw the move solely as an attempt to shore up a struggling special teams unit. Few, if any, give him a realistic shot as a legitimate NFL starter. It was likely his intangibles that convinced GM Ted Thompson to take a chance on Smith. Like so many of Thompson’s draft picks, Smith was a student of the game, a natural leader, and an instinctive player. Even with the shortened OTAs, Smith stood out in camp and preseason games–so much so, that by the start of the season, he had earned the No. 3 spot at ILB and had given the organization the confidence to keep only two backups at the position (Smith and the equally-untested Robert Francois.)
Call to Duty
It wasn’t until Week 12 (the Thanksgiving Day game against Detroit) that Smith got his first snaps on defense in the NFL. With both Hawk and Desmond Bishop forced out of the game due to calf injuries, Smith and Francois were pressed into action and responded well. Smith graded out at a +2.2 with four tackles, two stops, and a QB hurry. More importantly, he made few mistakes.
Smith followed up his strong debut with a trip to Meadowlands against the eventual Super Bowl Champion NY Giants. It was his first NFL start, yet he was given the responsibility of relaying the defensive calls from the sideline and ensuring that everyone was lined up correctly. The transmitter in the communication helmet malfunctioned for much of the first half, and Smith and the coaches were forced to improvise. Smith was unshaken, and all things considered, put up a respectable performance. His hurry on Eli Manning on the first play of the second quarter forced a poor throw and led to a Matthews interception return for touchdown. Nonetheless, Smith’s day ended on a sour note (-2.3) as his ugly open-field missed tackle on TE Jake Ballard and late coverage on a pass route out of the backfield both led to first downs that kept the Giants’ final game-tying drive alive.
Smith rebounded in impressive fashion (+5.0) against a hapless Raiders offense in Week 14. His interception, four quarterback hurries, and five defensive stops earned him a spot on our All-PFF Team for that week. He was decisive and powerful in his run defense, knifing through the line to meet runners head-on with violent collisions that resulted in losses or short gains. It was a startling sight for Packers fans who had grown accustom to Hawk’s “grab and drag” tackling.
A week later at Kansas City, Hawk returned to the starting lineup next to Smith. The pair had an up-and-down game, but Smith (+1.7, 2 stops) showed superior instincts–diagnosing and blowing up a screen and a misdirection play, while Hawk (-1.7, 3 stops) bit hard on several fakes leading to big gains. The next week, and for the remainder of the season, with both Bishop and Hawk healthy, Smith was relegated to the bench. The Packers’ sub-par play from half of their ILB tandem resumed as Hawk graded in the red for the final three games, including a -1.0 in the Divisional Playoff against the Giants.
While it’s impossible to project a player’s career after only four games, so far, so good. Smith’s 267 snaps are certainly enough to compare him with his peers. Our defensive Signature Stats do just that. They go beyond raw numbers like tackles and sacks to present a clearer picture of the impact players have when they are on the field.
|2011 Snaps||2011 PFF Grade||Run Stop %||Tackling Efficiency||Pass Rushing Productivity|
Our Run Stop Percentage shows how often players are making tackles on their run snaps that constitute an offensive loss. In short, when Bishop is defending a run play, 11.3% of the time (including the playoffs) he’s making a tackle that results in a negative play for the offense. That number is good for Top 10 among the leagues’ ILBs. Tackling Efficiency illustrates how well defenders do at finishing the play. For Smith, he made 18 tackles for every tackle he missed–a ratio that would have landed him in the Top 10 for that category with a few more qualifying snaps. Our Pass Rushing Productivity rating measures total pressure (hurries, hits, and sacks) generated per pass rushing snap with weighting toward sacks. It gives you an idea of which players are best at causing disruption when given the green light to pin their ears back and charge the quarterback. Bishop is among the league’s very best at ILB and Hawk is among the Top 20.
Time to Move On?
Head Coach Mike McCarthy has said Smith will have a chance to push for a starting role this season which could mean moving on without Hawk and his $4.4 million in salary cap money. With this year’s fifth-round draft pick Terrell Manning from NC State and the recent move of Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore from OLB to ILB, the team appears to be in position to do so. However, the Packers have a history of questionable decisions when it comes to the #5 pick in the 2006 Draft. The Packers coaches kept Bishop languishing on the bench behind Hawk (a move that many, including Bishop himself, questioned publicly) for a good two years before an injury to Nick Barnett early in 2010 finally got him on the field. Bishop immediately went about the task of proving to Packer management how wrong they had been. Over the last two seasons Bishop has graded out at +46.3 to Hawk’s -3.8.
At the end of the 2010 season, the Packers were again faced with a decision. This time it was whether to keep the fiery, often outspoken Barnett at starting ILB or re-sign Hawk as a free agent. Barnett’s injury history was a concern, as were his emotional highs and lows on gamedays. In a bit of a surprise, the Packers signed Hawk to a mind-boggling five-year, $33.75 million contract and cut Barnett. Barnett ended up in Buffalo with a three-year, $12 million deal and was one of their top defenders last season (+8.4).
The irony is that the Packers management has cited some of the same intangibles that drew them to Smith when defending their decisions on Hawk. They valued Hawk’s professionalism, work ethic, and his steady leadership in the huddle. With D.J. Smith as a starter, perhaps they could get more production to go with it.
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