The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2012 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Green Bay Packers, that player is middle linebacker DJ Smith.
GM Ted Thompson and the Green Bay Packers are widely considered one of the best drafting teams in the NFL. Never was this more apparent than on their 2010 Super Bowl run, when they won the Super Bowl despite 16 players going on IR. Guys kept getting hurt, but, because they draft so well, especially late in drafts, they had great depth and were able to plug in guys to not just fill the holes, but to play well enough for the team to make it all the way to the Super Bowl. 19 of their 22 offensive and defensive starters that year were either drafted by the Packers or signed as undrafted free agents.
One key injury was to middle linebacker Nick Barnett. Barnett, a homegrown player of the Packers, who they drafted in the 1st round in 2003, was going into his 8th year as a starter for the Packers. He had exceeded 100 tackles in 6 of his previous 7 seasons, 120 tackles 4 times, and 130 tackles 3 times. However, he only played 4 games in 2010 because he went on IR with a season ending wrist injury.
In his place, the Packers plugged in Desmond Bishop, a 6th round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Bishop was a largely unknown player who had tallied just 55 tackles in 3 seasons before 2010. However, he proved to be a star, filling in for Barnett, and graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker that year, en route to a Packers’ Super Bowl victory. Barnett played so well that it became an easy decision for the Packers to cut Barnett, an aging player, in the 2011 offseason, making Barnett the long term starter. In 2011, he wasn’t quite as good, but ranking 14th at his position on ProFootballFocus isn’t too shabby.
However, Bishop recently suffered a ruptured hamstring in a Packers’ preseason game and will get surgery and likely miss the entire season. Can they plug in another player and still get above average play from the position? If DJ Smith, a 2011 6th round pick, continues to play like he did in limited action last season, they can.
Making 4 starts in place of injured starters and playing just 267 snaps total, Smith had 26 solo tackles, 10 stops, 8 assists, and only missed 2 tackles. Further breaking it down, he had 15 solo tackles, 7 assists, and 8 stops (while not missing a single tackle) on 97 run stopping snaps, rates of 15.5%, 7.2%, and 8.2%. For comparison, Bishop had 56 solo tackles, 14 assists, and 28 stops on 258 run stopping snaps, rates of 21.7%, 5.4%, and 10.9%.
Bishop was better, but Smith wasn’t bad and, remember, last year was Smith’s rookie year. Extrapolate his play in 4 starts to 16 starts and he would have had 60 solo tackles, 28 assists, and 32 stops, which would have ranked tied for 7th, tied for 1st, and tied for 17th at his position last year. If you extrapolate his total tackle stats (on pass and run plays), he would have had 104 solo tackles, 32 assists, and 40 stops last year, while only missing 8 tackles. That would have ranked him 7th, tied for 1st, and tied for 24th, and tied for 27th at his position last season.
He was above average in 4 starts last season as a mere 6th round rookie and, even before Bishop’s injury, his strong play this offseason had him in the running for some passing down snaps, in place of AJ Hawk, who would become a two-down linebacker. With Bishop hurt, his coaching staff has full trust and support of him as what they call a “100% player.” He could definitely prove himself to be a more than adequate replacement and keep his job long term in 2013, which would likely lead to the marginal and overpaid Hawk being cut. The Packers appear to have uncovered another diamond in the rough with the 2011 6th rounder out of Appalachian State.
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