GREEN BAY, Wis. – The last out-of-work inside linebacker the Green Bay Packers signed couldn’t have turned out much better. If the latest one comes anywhere close to helping their defense as much as De'Vondre Campbell has, then Jaylon Smith will be a success.
The move comes four months after the Packers signed Campbell near the end of their offseason program.
Campbell has started every game this season and has been one of the Packers’ biggest playmakers on defense with an interception, a fumble recovery and 40 tackles.
It’s the spot next to Campbell that could become Smith’s. Second-year pro Krys Barnes manned that position until he suffered a concussion in the Week 3 game against the San Francisco 49ers. Since then, defensive coordinator Joe Barry has rotated Oren Burks and Ty Summers at that spot.
Barnes could return this week, and Smith likely wouldn’t be ready to play Sunday at the Bengals (1 p.m. ET, Fox), anyway. But if Smith can acclimate himself to Barry’s scheme, which is heavy on inside linebacker play, then perhaps he could be an upgrade.
“I like him as a person, and he’s a super friendly, happy guy, even on the field,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Wednesday when asked about the possibility of the Packers landing Smith.
“He’s a fierce competitor, but he always has a smile on his face. So I appreciate that about him, and it was just more of a respectful competitor-to-competitor conversation after the game. I haven’t heard if anything’s been done yet, but in general, I think anytime you add a veteran player to a team, there’s the possibility of a guy getting an opportunity who’s played football before at a high level, and sometimes it just takes an environment switch for some of those guys to play their best football.”
However, Smith’s lack of speed, especially when compared to Campbell, may ultimately limit him. Perhaps Barry can find a way to hide Smith’s deficiencies, but even though he’s only 26, he hasn’t looked like the same player he was earlier in his career.
In addition to a decline in performance, financial/salary-cap factors played into the reason the Cowboys moved on. For example, if Smith had gotten injured this season, then the Cowboys would have been on the hook for his $9.2 million salary for next season. As it is, Dallas is responsible for the remainder of his $7.2 million base salary this season, which allowed the Packers to get him cheap.
Packers coach Matt LaFleur has some personal experience with Smith, just like he did previously with Campbell. LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame in 2014 while Smith played for the Fighting Irish. Previously, LaFleur had worked with Campbell while both were with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, LaFleur as quarterbacks coach and Campbell as a rookie.
However, LaFleur had left Notre Dame before Smith sustained the horrific knee injury during his final college game – an injury that kept him out his entire rookie season -- 2016 -- in the NFL. His pro debut came in 2017; he has played in every game since.
“It’s been a pretty cool story having known Jaylon,” LaFleur said in 2019 when the Packers were preparing to play the Cowboys. "I’ve always really liked him, first and foremost as a person, and to see somebody battle through the adversity that he went through when there were a lot of people who told him he would never play [again]."