How LB De'Vondre Campbell went from out of work to star for Packers' defense

De'Vondre Campbell has two interceptions this season as he's developed from a player looking for a job to a key member of the 4-1 Packers. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers had a question after watching De'Vondre Campbell play the first five games of the season for the Green Bay Packers.

“How in the hell was this guy on the street?” Rodgers said he asked a teammate during Sunday’s overtime win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

It’s true, Campbell was one of the last linebackers left unsigned this spring.

It stayed that way until June 8 – the last week of offseason programs for most teams.

His previous team, the Arizona Cardinals, had loaded up on young, high-draft pick players at his position – Isaiah Simmons (No. 8 overall pick in 2020) and Zaven Collins (No. 16 in the 2021 draft). If the Cardinals didn’t land Collins in the first round, they may have taken another look at Campbell.

“It was a terrible, terrible linebacker market,” Campbell’s agent, Joe Panos, said this week. “It was the haves and the have-nots. There was no middle class. We weren’t going to sign a long-term deal, so we said, ‘Let’s sign a one-year deal with a team that will best show his attributes and has a history of winning.’”

One just happened to have been calling him for a while.

“Green Bay was on me hard and heavy for a long time,” Panos said. “He didn’t panic. We had some other teams that hit us up, and it was more money but not great winning situations and not fits for him.”

So Campbell, 28, finally took up the Packers on their offer: A one-year, $2 million deal that included a $1.01 million signing bonus.

The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Campbell hasn’t only been the biggest surprise on the Packers’ defense so far this season, he’s also been their biggest playmaker. Sunday’s game was more of the same: a team-high eight tackles (matching safety Adrian Amos), including a tackle for loss, and an interception (also matching Amos). Campbell’s pick and TFL both came in overtime.

The interception – his second of the season to go along with a fumble recovery – showed what the Packers had been missing from that position. He dropped into coverage and duped Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow into throwing the ball right to him. It’s exactly what new defensive coordinator Joe Barry wants from the linebackers in his system.

“Him coming to Green Bay was the absolute best thing for him and vice-versa; he’s a total fit for this defense,” said Panos, who played 83 games as an offensive lineman for the Eagles and Bills. “He runs like a deer, and in this climate, you need a three-down guy who can cover. They disguise a lot of stuff with him. Not many guys can line up in the A-gap and come out in coverage and get picks.”

The sixth-year pro leads the Packers in tackles and ranks seventh in the NFL with 47. He has played all but 14 defensive snaps this season and has been tasked with wearing the “green-dot” helmet with the speaker to relay the defensive calls from the sideline to the other 10 players on the field.

“It’s a great pickup by our personnel folks,” Rodgers said. “He can run, he's a great tackler, he's around the ball all the time, he's a great locker room guy. I mean it's baffling to me [that he was available].”

Campbell started all 16 games for the Cardinals last season, and the only knock on him was that his play fell off late in the season, but Panos said that was due to an injury. Previously, Campbell had spent his first four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, who drafted him in the fourth round (No. 115 overall) of the 2016 draft.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur was with the Falcons at that time as quarterbacks coach and also was surprised this offseason that Campbell was not signed by anyone.

"How in the hell was this guy on the street?" Aaron Rodgers, on De'Vondre Campbell

“I'm sure glad he wasn't, for our sake,” LaFleur said this week.

At that point, the Packers still weren’t satisfied with the inside linebacker position. They had released Christian Kirksey after just one season and were left with a collection of young, unproven players: Krys Barnes, Kamal Martin, Oren Burks, Ty Summers and rookie Isaiah McDuffie. Martin, a fifth-round pick last year, once looked promising but sustained a knee injury last year and was never the same. The Packers released him before training camp ended. Barnes, when healthy, has manned the spot next to Campbell in the base and nickel defenses, but Campbell stays on as the only inside linebacker in the other packages.

“I think I’m doing a pretty good job considering that I came in really late,” Campbell said. “I didn't have a full offseason with my guys on defense.

“There’s always things you can get better at, but I think we’re off to a good start. There’s a lot of football left, so I just have to continue to make corrections and continue to get better and strive for perfection.”