Training camp is less than two weeks away for the Green Bay Packers. As part of my preview, I will be highlighting all 91 players on the Packers roster as I make my way through each position group, taking a look at what I’ve seen during the offseason programs, where things stand, expectations, and more. I’ll also be making a final roster prediction as well.
Continuing on with the defensive side of the ball, it’s now time to take a closer look at the linebackers, one of the more stable position groups on this team. We know that De’Vondre Campbell and Quay Walker will dominate the defensive playing time, and behind them are some core special teams players.
As I discussed in my preview of the interior defensive line, being better against the run is the key to this Green Bay defense playing better football in 2023. While that starts with the defensive front, as run game coordinator Jerry Mongomery said, it really includes the entire front seven. For the linebackers, this means more sound tackling, filling gaps, and taking on blockers.
If Campbell plays like he did to finish the 2022 season and Walker takes step forward in Year 2, the Packers should be in very good shape at this position.
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After an All-Pro season in 2021 with the Packers that included De’Vondre Campbell ranking sixth in tackles among linebackers and missing the fewest, he also ranked fourth in stops, and the 6.8 yards per catch allowed was the second-fewest.
This past season, however, Campbell took a step back, especially early on. To some degree, this should have been anticipated coming off an All-Pro season, but it was also more so than expected. In the first six games, Campbell would miss six tackles, according to PFF, and he ranked 36th in stops–or plays that constitute a loss for the offense.
Injuries would play a factor in this. Campbell recently took to Twitter and said he is now “100% healthy” after dealing with a shoulder injury early on in the season and a knee injury that kept him out for several weeks.
Coming out of the bye week in Week 14 and back from his knee injury, Campbell was a much more sound tackler, not missing any during those final four games. He also allowed fewer than eight yards per catch in coverage. Campbell was back to making an impact on all three downs, and not coincidentally, the Packers’ defense as a whole was playing its best football.
The Packers don’t need Campbell playing at an All-Pro level in order for them to be successful, but he does have to be closer to his end-of-the-season form than what we saw early on.
It was a very up-and-down season for Quay Walker, to say the least. We would see flashes of his playmaking ability and then the growing pains that can come with relying heavily on a rookie, including missed tackles and taking time to diagnose what the offense was doing. Oh, he was also ejected twice as well.
With that said, Walker filled the stat sheet for Green Bay and was named to the All-Rookie team. He finished the season with 116 tackles, had three forced fumbles, five pass breakups, and logged 12 pressures while being an effective blitzer. We also saw progression from Walker as the season went on, most notably in the run game. In the latter portion of the season, he was identifying what was taking place more quickly, which put him in a better position to make plays.
Walker brings a ton of versatility to the linebacker position, and in part, as linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti mentioned during OTAs, it’s figuring out all the ways he can be utilized in this version of the Packers’ defense. But first and foremost, before taking on additional responsibilities, such as in a pass-rushing role where we saw him lined up at edge rusher last season, Walker has to continue to show that he can consistently handle his regular linebacker duties.
Of course, Campbell and Walker are going to handle pretty much all of the linebacker snaps, but Isaiah McDuffie, towards the end of last season, emerged as the third linebacker option. Throughout OTAs and minicamp, he continued to fill that role as well.
McDuffie has emerged as a core special teams player and will continue to fill that role. In 2022, he ranked third on the team in snaps, first in total special teams tackles, and his overall grade from PFF ranked 11th in the entire NFL.
This was a sneaky good in-season signing by Brian Gutekunst last season. A few weeks in, the Packers signed Eric Wilson off the New Orleans practice squad. Despite getting a late start with Green Bay, Wilson still played the sixth most special teams snaps and finished second on the team in tackles. Overall, he was PFF’s top-graded special teams player in 2022.
If there is a big question at this position, it revolves around whether the Packers will go heavy and keep a fifth inside linebacker on the roster. Oftentimes, they’ve kept just four. Tariq Carpenter is making the switch from safety to linebacker this offseason, where he brings a lot of versatility, whether that be as someone who can drop in coverage, help against the run, or be a pass rusher.
While versatility is always a good thing in football, it’s also very important that, as a young player, Carpenter carve out a specific role on defense as well. At least from our vantage point on the outside looking in, he is yet to do that, and that will play a role in him sticking around for the long haul.
Like Wilson and McDuffie, Carpenter was a key special teams contributor. He ranked 14th in special teams snaps because of not being a starter right away but still finished the year with the third most tackles on the Packers unit. With Green Bay’s added emphasis on special teams, this may be enough to help Carpenter stick around for another season as he adjusts to linebacker.
Not to be forgotten about at the linebacker position is 2023 undrafted rookie Jimmy Phillips from SMU. Most of Phillips’ playing time in college came over his final two seasons, where he spent most of his time in the box as a traditional linebacker, but he also has experience lining up in the slot and along the defensive front.
Two aspects of Phillips’ game that leap off the page are his special teams experience in college with 834 career snaps and his reliability as a tackler, where he made 165 out of his 176 tackle attempts and had the 10th best-tackling grade from PFF in 2022. In a crowded linebacker room, Phillips’ ceiling with the Packers is as a practice squad player this season.
De’Vondre Campbell, Quay Walker, Isaiah McDuffie, Eric Wilson, and Tariq Carpenter
As I’ve already alluded to, the question is whether or not the Packers keep four or five linebackers. Ultimatley, I think they keep five. Carpenter is a valuable special teams player and only entering his second NFL season. If there is a roster crunch at this position, my guess is the decision comes down to keeping either Carpenter or Wilson in that fourth and final spot. Do the Packers choose Wilson’s stability and experience for a season or Carpenter’s youth and upside? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the latter, as the Packers find themselves in a transition year, not to mention that when discussing a final roster spot, many teams choose potential over experience. But, with that said, at least as of now, I don’t believe that’s a decision the Packers will be making.