GREEN BAY, Wis. — As a rookie last season, Green Bay Packers inside linebacker D.J. Smith was about as good as a sixth-round pick could be in limited opportunities. He showed so much promise that Packers fans have been clamoring for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to find more ways to get Smith involved in a defense that gave up more passing yards in 2011 than any unit in NFL history.
Add to it that A.J. Hawk, the No. 5 overall pick by Green Bay in 2006 and starter at inside linebacker ever since, has not been a consistent playmaker in his six-year career with the Packers and there would seem to be a possible opening — or at least training camp position battle — in which Smith could compete for more snaps, or even a starting job.
There’s just one problem: Smith doesn’t exactly play Hawk’s position. Though a survey across the locker room and coaching staff revealed several contrasting answers, Smith’s understanding is that his inside linebacker spot is significantly different than the one Hawk occupies.
Basically, Smith is not Hawk’s backup in the team’s 3-4 defense.
“You can say it’s kind of minor, but it’s kind of a big difference,” Smith said. “It’s still a middle linebacker, but one position (Hawk’s) has more responsibility than the other. When it comes to A.J.’s spot, he’s the signal caller. He’s the guy that runs the show. He’s the quarterback of the whole thing. He gets guys lined up, ready to go and makes all the checks when things switch around.”
In Capers’ scheme, the terminology breakdown between the two positions is that Desmond Bishop is the “mack” linebacker and Hawk is the “buck” linebacker.
“You want to know everything just in case, if A.J. is stumbling or that ‘buck’ linebacker is stumbling, you want to know the calls so you can get it out quick,” Smith said.
But if Hawk gets injured or is replaced in the starting lineup, according to Smith, he wouldn’t be the one to take over. Instead, Robert Francois — a 27-year-old who has appeared in 19 career NFL games — would grab Hawk’s spot.
“(I’m just) the No. 2 behind Bishop,” Smith said. “Francois is Hawk’s (backup). As far as I know, that’s all I know.”
Smith’s explanation implies that the difference between playing the mack and buck linebacker positions can be likened to tight end Jermichael Finley taking over for wide receiver Greg Jennings in an offensive series. Finley is certainly not Jennings’ backup, just as Smith is not Hawk’s backup. The position is different, but it carries relatively similar responsibilities.
Bishop’s explanation of the difference between the two positions didn’t make the situation any more transparent.
“It’s different, but at the same time, it’s pretty much the same,” Bishop said. “I guess you have different responsibilities. They’re interchangeable for the most part.”
To make matters more complex, consider how Capers handled the two inside linebacker positions in Weeks 13 and 14 last season. Both Bishop and Hawk were out with injuries, which put Smith and Francois into the starting lineup. Smith was the mack linebacker (Bishop’s spot) and Francois was the buck linebacker (Hawk’s spot). Despite that, Smith — not Francois — wore Hawk’s headset and called the signals.
“I started Bishop’s spot, then we changed and went a certain personnel, we brought more defensive backs in, so technically I still had the headset, but I was still playing Bishop’s spot,” Smith said.
So though Smith is convinced he would never actually compete for snaps against Hawk due to the position difference, Capers doesn’t quite view it that way.
“He can play either one,” Capers said. “He’s smart enough, he can play either one. I think D.J. will be competing. He’s a football-savvy guy. You saw when he played for us last year. He’s way ahead now because he’s been around and he’s smart, he can make all the calls.
“We’re going to have a really good competition in there at the inside linebacker position.”
However, that competition apparently does not include Smith vying for a starting spot.
“As far as I understand, I’m a backup,” Smith said. “Those guys are the starters. I’m rooting for those guys, I’m behind those guys. Whatever (the coaches) want me to do, I’m willing to do it, whether that be special teams, special packages, I’m at their disposal. Whatever they want me to do.”
Unless Capers’ plans change drastically between now and the July 26 start of training camp, Packers fans will have to wait at least one more season for Smith to become a permanent fixture on the first-team defense.