In 2011, the Packers used a sixth-round pick on D.J. Smith. Injuries to A.J. Hawk and Bishop allowed Smith to start three games as a rookie, and he responded with games of nine tackles, 12 tackles and an interception, and nine tackles.
Barring a significant injury to Hawk or Bishop, it looks like Smith will have to be content with playing special teams, just like Bishop for his first three-plus seasons in the league.
"I just try to be the best that I can be and be a pro," Smith told Packer Report on Thursday as he was briskly walking out of the locker room for the final time until training camp starts next month. "Whatever Coach calls on me to do, whether it be situational or three-down backer, whatever he wants me to do, I'm willing to do it."
Under coach Mike McCarthy and with the team's draft-and-development business model, every offseason is vital. That's especially true for Smith and the rest of the 2011 draft class, which didn't get the benefit of on-field instruction and team-supervised strength and conditioning work because of the lockout.
Smith is one of those players who has taken advantage.
"You look at what D.J. did last year, he was able to play (on special teams) right away and then had the opportunities to start a couple games," McCarthy said on Thursday. "If my memory serves correct, he won two game balls, so given his opportunities, he performed very well. Now you see a young player very comfortable getting in and out of all the personnel groups. Very instinctive player, very good space player. He just looks a lot more comfortable. He's probably one of more instinctive defensive players. That shows up both on special teams and, particularly, the sub packages. I look for him to be one of those second-year players who makes a big step, makes a big contribution this year."
Those big contributions, presumably, will have to be on special teams and as the top backup at both inside linebacker positions. Bishop has become one of the game's better inside linebackers, an impact player against the run and as a blitzer. Hawk, even with no turnover-producing plays last year, has the coaching staff in his corner. During OTAs, inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said, "You cannot measure A.J. and what he brings to this team in some of the intangibles."
Simply put, the Packers showed no signs of having an open competition during offseason practices, though if Smith has a dominant start to training camp, the coaches' thinking could change.
"You've got to be excited about him," Moss said. "He came in last year without an offseason, and by the end of the year had a substantial grasp of this defense to where we obviously felt comfortable putting him in. This offseason, nothing had detracted from that. So, he's in a tough position where he has guys in front of him that have stripes. He will have to continue to work hard and do the things that we're asking him to do, and if he wants to play more, he's going to have to take somebody's job. It's as simple as that."
For his part, Smith — who plays Bishop's spot with the No. 2 defense — is looking to elevate his game. His three starts were a positive indication, but with Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore shifted inside and Terrell Manning added with a fifth-round draft pick, nothing's guaranteed.
"Of course, with more playing time, your confidence level's going to rise," Smith said when asked what those three starts meant to him. "It's pretty good right now, but going into training camp, I've got to start all over again and win a job."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.