The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide insight into the NFL's 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven't fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
The admission came as a shock to Calais Campbell. Earlier this month, Campbell, the Cardinals’ $55 million defensive end, was engaged in a conversation with one of the team’s offensive linemen. The topic was his teammate’s impressions of the Cardinals’ defensive line before he arrived in Arizona. “He said he heard about [Darnell] Dockett,” Campbell says. “He knew Dockett was a beast. But he didn’t know who I was.” That teammate, whom Campbell politely declined to name, hasn’t been in the league long, but Campbell didn’t make much of an effort to hide his disbelief. “That’s like, ‘Wow
really?’ That’s crazy.”
It’s a quote that represents why Campbell is such a perfect fit for this series, whose goal is to shed light on players who can dominate games but have never been recognized for it. Now in his sixth NFL season, the attention paid Campbell by both his peers and casual fans has never matched his production or his value. Since his first full season as a starter, Campbell has had at least six sacks every year — a feat that’s even more impressive when you consider how the Cardinals employ their best defensive player.
According to Football Outsiders, J.J. Watt was the only defensive lineman who participated in a higher percentage of his team’s plays last season. For Campbell, it was the second consecutive season finishing second in that metric. The 6-foot-8 end has been one of the most productive defensive players in football for the past five seasons, but he has yet to make one trip to the Pro Bowl. Campbell comes armed with a ready-made line about what he can control, but he says the lack of recognition does get frustrating. “I do want to leave a legacy behind,” Campbell says. “I do want to go to the Hall of Fame, but I feel like that’s impossible to do without going to Pro Bowls and getting the respect of your peers.”
Arizona entered this season with its fourth defensive coordinator since Campbell arrived, but through three games his responsibilities remain unchanged. Campbell has managed just one sack and five overall stops during Arizona’s 1-2 start, but new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is using him in the same assorted ways he’s been used his entire career. Few linemen have been asked to play as many roles as Campbell has during his time in Arizona. Fewer still could fill them all as well as Campbell has.
When the 2007 college football season began, Campbell was among the most highly touted prospects in the country. He'd finished the previous season with 10.5 sacks for a defense that allowed more than 20 points just twice. He was voted first-team All-ACC as a sophomore, and entering his junior season, most considered him a high first-round talent. His struggles in 2007 mirrored the Hurricanes’. Miami went 5-7 in Randy Shannon’s first season as head coach, and Campbell saw more attention from blockers in his first season as an established star. He managed just six sacks on the season, only one and a half in the team’s final seven games.
Despite the lack of production, Campbell’s size and obvious physical gifts still meant he would probably go late in the first round — until that year’s NFL combine.
Campbell elected to train away from the Miami campus, a decision that in retrospect, he says was a mistake. During his baseline tests, Campbell finished with just seven reps of 225 pounds on the bench press — an abysmal total for any defensive lineman, even one with Campbell's long arms. The next couple of months were spent developing Campbell’s upper body strength, and although he eventually finished with 16 reps on the bench (an improved, but still below-average total), other areas suffered. His 5.0-second 40-yard dash in Indianapolis became a significant concern, and the late first round turned from the worst- to the best-case scenario.
When draft day came, Campbell got a call from the Jacksonville Jaguars saying that if Campbell was available, they would take him with the 26th overall pick, but Jacksonville swung a draft-day trade to move up into the top 10 for Florida defensive end Derrick Harvey. The first and second round of the 2008 draft were filled with defensive ends with plenty of size but issues with speed and athleticism. Lawrence Jackson, Phillip Merling, and Jason Jones all joined Campbell as first- to second-round picks who weighed at least 270 pounds but were seen as middling pass-rushers, and, eventually, Campbell was the third of the four to be selected, by the Cardinals with the 50th overall pick.
In college, Campbell’s length and pass-rushing success had garnered comparisons to Julius Peppers — a 6-6 rusher who’d also dominated the ACC as a 4-3 defensive end. It was a similar role to the one Campbell had envisioned in the NFL. But from his first days in Arizona, Campbell realized how different his new task would be. As part of the Cardinals’ hybrid fronts, Campbell would be playing both defensive tackle in a 4-3 and defensive end in a 3-4. The one thing, it seemed, that Arizona wouldn’t be asking him to do, is to play the position with which he’d become most familiar. “I’d never played inside before,” Campbell says. “I’d never played a three technique or five technique. It was a whole new position for me. The first year, it was just about learning.”
Campbell played sparingly for a Cardinals team that went all the way to the Super Bowl, and by season’s end, he’d become comfortable enough in Arizona’s system that he knew his second year would look nothing like his first. “I knew right away, as soon as the season was over, that I was going to be dominant,” Campbell says. “There were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. I was ready.”
Brentson Buckner spent 12 years as an NFL defensive tackle, but this is his first year back in the league as a full-time assistant coach. Getting to coach someone like Campbell has meant constantly considering new ways to approach how he and the Cardinals use their fronts and alignments. “When you have a guy like that, you’re always trying to be creative,” Buckner says. “You don’t ever want to feel like you’re handcuffing his natural ability. You want him to use what he’s been blessed with. For me, it makes me want to stay on my toes — let’s find a new, innovative way to use him.”
Arizona’s defensive line staff consists of Buckner, in his first season as a coach, and Tom Pratt, the Cardinals’ pass-rush specialist in his 35th season as an assistant. “Tom Pratt is a guy who’s been around since football was invented,” Buckner says. That’s not quite accurate, but Pratt was a coach for the Chiefs in Super Bowl I, when Kansas City’s defense featured a Hall of Fame, 6-7 defensive tackle named Buck Buchanan. As he’s considered how to best use Campbell, Buckner has watched film on many of the taller defensive line stars from NFL history, including Buchanan, Chris Doleman, and Jumpy Geathers. “A lot of kids don’t want to see the older film, but there’s a history in this game. Good technique travels. Football can change, but great players have technique in common, and you can put it on film and pull it from any generation.”
These alignments all come from just the first quarter of Arizona’s game against the Lions in Week 2. In the first image, Campbell is lined up as a three technique defensive tackle, on the outside edge of the guard. Typically, this is his ideal spot from which to rush the passer, as a one-gap rusher able to take advantage of guards less talented in pass protection. In the second, we see him lined up as a nose tackle in a 4-3, and in the third, as a five technique defensive end in a 3-4.
Campbell’s ability to slide all over the Arizona defensive line is a product of his unique combination of both size and skills. Coming out of Miami, everyone knew he could rush the passer, but there were concerns about his ability to hold up in the run game, especially when double-teamed. Campbell’s first goal upon learning he’d be moving from the traditional 4-3 end he played in college to the inside was to add strength.
This is a play from Arizona’s Week 8 loss to San Francisco last year. Campbell is lined up as a three technique on the right side, and at the snap, 49ers left tackle Joe Staley blocks down on him with a little help from left guard Mike Iupati.
Staley was one of the best left tackles in football last year, and here he has an angle on Campbell that would typically allow him to wash a lesser player inside and create a lane for Frank Gore. Campbell avoids that by anchoring his weight with his left leg as soon as he feels Staley come down from the outside. Despite Staley’s advantage to start the play, Campbell holds his ground and sits directly in the hole, where he can wait to wrap up Gore for almost no gain. When Buckner was preparing for his first season with Arizona, Campbell’s ability to hold up in those kinds of plays was what he noticed. “He understood leverage, playing at that height, which is unusual for a tall defensive lineman,” Buckner says. “His strength, just his natural strength, was the thing that stood out for me most first watching the film."
As a pass-rusher, Campbell says the most significant change from college to the NFL was in how fast plays develop as an inside player. At Miami, Campbell spent most of his time lined up all the way outside the tackle. Now, he’ll rarely even be head up with one. “Everything inside happens quicker,” Campbell says. “The more you go inside, the faster everything happens. When I was playing a more true outside D-end, speed-rushing, you have all day to make your moves.”
Here, against Seattle in 2011, Campbell is lined up as three technique over the guard, which is typically a mismatch for him as a pass-rusher. He still has the quickness and length that led to double-digit sacks in college, and in instances where guards are tasked with blocking him alone, the Cardinals are left with a real advantage.
Campbell says he was initially disappointed when he didn’t end up with a team that played a traditional 4-3 defense. Having to learn a new style of play and how to live life in the NFL was a lot to ask of a rookie. Now, he couldn’t imagine playing any other way. “This is home for me,” Campbell says. “I can create a lot with different matchups. I know when to take my chances. I know when I get to shoot gaps. You just get a feel for it.”
This is a play from Arizona’s Week 15 win over the Lions last year. Campbell is lined up as a 3-4 defensive end, responsible for both the gap inside and outside Detroit’s left guard. When the ball is snapped, Campbell has to engage with and control the guard, find the ball, and finally, shed his blocker and make the play. It’s one of the more complicated assignments for any defensive lineman, and here he does it easily. Two quarters earlier, Campbell made a nearly identical play, also in the backfield. Before the game’s final minute, Campbell had seven tackles. The three that came on first downs all went for three yards or less, and the other four resulted in negative yardage. It was Campbell's best game to date.
In some ways, what J.J. Watt did last year irreparably distorted expectations for blue-chip interior linemen. When compared with Watt’s 20.5 sacks from 2012, Campbell’s eight sacks in 2011 seems paltry. But compared to just about any other interior defensive linemen, Campbell’s production was been excellent. In 12 seasons, Richard Seymour never had more than eight sacks in one year. He went to the Pro Bowl seven times.
Campbell closely watched Watt’s season last year with a combination of awe and competitiveness. “I’m really very motivated by J.J. Watt,” Campbell says. “He did something a lot of us didn’t even know was possible. Now that we know that it is, you look for the opportunities to do it too.”
Campbell says that many of the moves and approaches Watt was able to use as a “four-eye” defensive tackle (head up on the offensive tackle) were ones he’d never seen before, and they’re techniques he experimented with all through training camp. Hopefully they’ll be enough, all with one more year of his own development, to bring his sack total into the double digits. Maybe then, everyone around the league will know his name.