Packers Annual Checkup: ILB D.J. Smith

Today is the 45th day of FOX Sports Wisconsin Packers writer Paul Imig’s offseason evaluations of every player on Green Bay’s roster. Click here for all of Paul’s previous evaluations and come back every day through mid-March for Paul’s in-depth film and statistical analysis. Coming up soon:

Thursday, March 14: RB James Starks

Friday, March 15: TE Ryan Taylor
Saturday, March 16: G Greg Van Roten
Sunday, March 17: TE D.J. Williams
Monday, March 18: CB Tramon Williams
Tuesday, March 19: DL C.J. Wilson

D.J. SMITH, INSIDE LINEBACKER

Season stats: Six games (suffered season-ending knee injury in Week 6); 39 tackles, three missed tackles,  two sacks, five QB hurries, four passes defensed, zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles

Best game: Week 4 win over New Orleans (six tackles, two stops, zero missed tackles; played 71 of 80 defensive snaps; season-best 3.1 PFF rating)

Worst game: Week 3 loss at Seattle (five tackles, three stops; played 59 of 61 defensive snaps; season-worst minus-3.7 PFF rating)

ProFootballFocus.com season rating: minus-2.0 (No. 17 out of 23 Packers defensive players; second-best among Packers inside linebackers)

Expectations at the start of the season: Medium

Expectations were … Met

Looking live: Smith, a sixth-round pick in 2011, was so impressive in his limited opportunities as a rookie that there was debate leading into training camp whether he could replace A.J. Hawk in the starting lineup. As Smith explained it, though, he was technically the backup for Desmond Bishop at the “mack” inside linebacker position and not the backup for Hawk at the “buck” inside linebacker position. So after the season-ending injury to Bishop in the first preseason game, Smith got his chance to be a starter at his more natural “mack” spot. When the regular season began, Smith was playing nearly 100 percent of the snaps. Unfortunately for Smith, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 6 and joined Bishop on the sideline. With both Smith and Bishop unavailable, the Packers then turned to Brad Jones, who ended up having a very good season in that spot.

Upon further review: Prior to his injury, Smith’s play was inconsistent. He had a very good game against New Orleans, but that was the only complete performance Smith put together. It’s not that Smith wasn’t ready to elevate to starter status, but he wasn’t quite as good as what he showed as a rookie. Playing a full season certainly would have helped, as Smith was improving as each game progressed. He rushed the quarterback only 55 times but still accounted for five QB hurries. Smith was exploited in coverage at times. Dropping into coverage on 174 snaps, Smith allowed 14 completions on 21 passes thrown his way, including two touchdowns. Surprisingly, his weakest area was in stopping the run. As a rookie in 2011, that was arguably Smith’s biggest strength. He’s listed at 5-foot-11 and that may be on the generous side. For comparison, Bishop is 6-foot-2 and Hawk is 6-foot-1. Given Smith’s lack of size, he needs to make up for it in other ways. In the starting role, Smith seemed to lack the same level of confidence that he had when he got to play a few games from a backup role in 2011. Again, though, that was all improving when he got injured and likely would have continued to improve had he stayed healthy.

Overall 2012 grade: C

Status for 2013: 99 percent chance of being on the Packers’ active roster in Week 1 next season. Smith suffered the ACL injury in October and had surgery in November, so he should be ready when training camp opens in late July. The most likely scenario is that, with Bishop healthy, Smith will return to his backup role in 2013. That could change depending on Hawk’s status, but, at the very least, Green Bay knows that it has a very capable reserve player in Smith who could step in and contribute if called upon.

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