Thursday, August 06, 2009
July 26, 2009
By Pete Dougherty
Aaron Kampman used hard work and underappreciated talent to become one of the most complete defensive ends in the NFL.
Now at age 29 he’s making a notable position change from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker, and in the next few months he and the Green Bay Packers will find out whether he’ll be the same ultra-productive player in his new role, or whether they’re trying fit the proverbial square peg into a round hole.
The Packers have done and said everything they can to convince Kampman the change will be good for him, and he’s attacked the job with his usual professionalism. But Kampman, while never publicly expressing any concerns, nevertheless showed great reluctance to talk about the move this offseason, which gave off a strong vibe that he was less than thrilled moving out of a role where he’d become one of the better players in the league.
“I read this, but I don’t sense that from Aaron,” said Dom Capers, the new defensive coordinator who will orchestrate the change to the 3-4. “I haven’t sensed (discomfort with the move) at all since I’ve been here. I spoke with him probably three or four days after I was here. He was wanting to know what all he had to do and what weight (he should be), just like you’d anticipate out of Aaron. I said, ‘You don’t have to lose a pound, you just get yourself in good shape where you can move around.”
Considering Kampman has been to two Pro Bowls and has 37 sacks over the past three years, it’s hard to blame him for any trepidation. He’s one of the Packers’ most important players and, like receiver Donald Driver, is worth more to them than what he does on the field because of the professional example he sets daily for young teammates. But Kampman is in the last year of his contract, and if he’s not the same player in 2009, he’ll have major incentive next year to go to a defense that plays the 4-3.
In informal conversations this offseason, a handful of NFL scouts were split on how Kampman will play in the new scheme, where he’ll have more responsibility in pass coverage after previously dropping only on the rare zone blitz. The Packers point to defensive ends such as Greg Ellis in Dallas and Mike Vrabel with New England as 4-3 defensive ends who didn’t look like good fits in the 3-4 but successfully made the transition.
This offseason, the Packers listed the 6-foot-4 Kampman at 260 pounds, which is about five pounds lighter than his playing weight last year. Besides conditioning and agility workouts, he also worked full time in the offseason training program with new outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene.
In offseason practices open to the media, Kampman not surprisingly looked a little on the stiff side when he dropped into coverage, but as the offseason went on, he occasionally showed some of the same instincts he displayed as a defensive end. On one noteworthy play at the Packers’ final minicamp in late June, he dropped into a middle zone, leaped and tipped a pass by quarterback Aaron Rodgers intended for Driver.
“He spent hour after hour with Kevin individually,” Capers said. “He’s done all those things that you’d ask any player to do. You can see why he’s been a good player, because he takes his profession very seriously.
“Like anybody, we’ve been conditioned to do a certain thing and all of a sudden you change that, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty. As we go along, he’ll become much more certain in those areas, (but) he might be reluctant to talk about it until he feels comfortable that he’s gotten some things down that he can talk about. I can’t speak for Aaron, but from my perspective, he’s been exactly what you want.”
Capers has emphasized all offseason that he can adjust the scheme and his calls to his personnel, and that he will mix in the 4-3 if needed in this season of defensive transition. McCarthy fired most of his previous defensive staff and switched to the 3-4 mainly to improve a weak pass rush that last season finished No. 25 in the NFL in sacks percentage. But while Capers might be able to coax more pressure on the quarterback with his varied blitz packages, he’ll also need to get the most out of Kampman, who was the team’s only pass-rush threat last season.
In making the transition, the Packers consider Kampman a better athlete than Ellis and Vrabel. Ellis, who was listed at 262 pounds when he made the change in 2003, averaged 8.2 sacks in his five seasons as an outside linebacker with the Cowboys, including getting a career-high 12½ sacks and a Pro Bowl appearance in 2007. Vrabel, who played defensive end in college at Ohio State but at 271 pounds moved to outside linebacker as a rookie with Pittsburgh, became a starter with New England in 2001 and had a career-high 12½ sacks in ’07.
Capers succeeded in similar first-year transitions with two other defensive ends, Tony Brackens in Jacksonville and Jason Taylor in Miami, though they are different-type players than Kampman. In 1999, Brackens, who was 6-4 and 267, had 12 sacks, which topped his previous high of seven; in 2006, Taylor, who was an elite defensive end but also had a prototype 3-4 build at 6-6 and 255, had 13 ½ sacks and was named NFL defensive player of the year at age 32.
“(Kampman) seems comfortable out there in space in the things we are asking him to do,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think he is a much better athlete than people give him credit, making the change as you can say from defensive end to outside linebacker. I expect Aaron to be very, very productive in this defense.”
For another former defensive end, the change to 3-4 outside linebacker already appears to have been a boon. Jeremy Thompson (6-4, 260), a fourth-round draft pick from 2008, goes into training camp with an edge over first-round draft pick Clay Matthews for the starting job at right outside linebacker. Thompson (6-4, 260) opened the offseason at that position and played well enough to stay ahead of Matthews through the final minicamp.
Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk will be the starting inside linebackers in a scheme that’s designed to free them to make most of the tackles in the inside run game.
When camp opens Saturday, Barnett will be eight months removed from reconstruction surgery on his right knee but has been optimistic about his rehabilitation all offseason.
Hawk is entering something of a make-or-break fourth season in the NFL. He’s not been close to the impact player the Packers projected for the No. 5 pick overall in the 2006 draft and regressed last season while playing through chest and groin injuries. McCarthy has said the injuries were more of a hindrance than Hawk let on last season, and the Packers are looking for him to be a more dynamic and physical player in the new scheme than he was his first three years. If Hawk isn’t much improved, backup Brandon Chillar is coming off a solid offseason and could overtake him.