Aaron Rodgers has hogged most of the highlights for the 11-0 Green Bay Packers this season, and rightfully so. The frontrunner for NFL MVP had to make a little room for some newcomers in Thursday’s win over the Detroit Lions, however.
Offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith and linebackers Robert Francois and D.J. Smith stepped in after injuries to starters and left their mark on the Packers latest victory. Unknown players stepping up when needed has become a trend for the Packers over the last two seasons.
Who are these latest unknowns and where did they come from?
How he got here: Cut by the Packers at the end of training camp in 2010, Dietrich-Smith resigned with Green Bay in Week 17 and remained on the roster throughout the postseason. The Packers originally signed Dietrich-Smith as an undrafted free agent out of Idaho State in 2009. He was the only undrafted player to make the team.
Why he’s here: Dietrich-Smith has the athleticism to play all three interior OL positions. He can also handle a zone blocking scheme. At Idaho State, the 6-2, 308-pounder started 44 games and received All-Conference honorable mention four times.
Memorable moment: The kick heard ‘round the Midwest. Dietrich-Smith replacstandout G Josh Sitton in the second quarter of Thursday’s game against the Detroit Lions and was immediately matched up against Ndamukong Suh. Dietrich-Smith held his own against Suh. After taking Suh to the ground on a 3rd and goal play, Suh repeatedly drove Dietrich-Smith’s head into the turf before getting up and kicking the Packers backup in the arm. Suh was ejected and likely will get suspended.
Future outlook: If Sitton remains out, it will be Dietrich-Smith’s time to shine. He won’t come close to filling Sitton’s shoes, but with the way Aaron Rodgers and this offense is going, he doesn’t have to. Looking further down the road, there’s an outside shot Dietrich-Smith could enter a competition to start at center next season if the Packers don’t resign Scott Wells.
How he got here: A teammate of B.J. Raji at Boston College, Francois entered the NFL in 2009 as an undrafted rookie with the Vikings. The 6-2, 255-pound LB was on the Packers active roster twice and the practice squad three times in 2010.
Why he’s here: The Packers lost Desmond Bishop and A.J.Hawk to calf injuries on Thursday and Francois carried on the Packers recent next man up tradition. Francois went undrafted in 2009, but received marks on his pro day workout. Francois worked with the defensive backs on Boston College’s pro day and actually looked better than most of the secondary prospects.
Memorable moment: Francois appeared in one preseason game with the Lions in 2009 before being waived. He got his revenge on Thanksgiving. Francois picked off Matthew Stafford in the third quarter and one play later, Rodgers connected with James Jones on a 65-yard TD that gave the Packers a 21-0 lead.
Future outlook:. In addition to his leaping interception, Francois had tackles on the two previous plays before the pick. If Hawk or Bishop don’t return, communication on defense could become an issue. As far as what happens after the ball is snapped, it’s never good to lose a starter, but after what the Packers did last season, I don’t think we’d notice much of a dropoff without Hawk. Bishop, however, would be noticeable.
How he got here: The Packers drafted Smith with the second of their three 6th round picks in the 2011 draft.
Why he’s here: At Appalachian State, the 5-11, 239-pound Smith was a tackling machine. By the time his college career ended, Smith was the NCAA Division I FCS active leader in tackles in with 525. Smith showed off his nose for the ball on Thursday and finished with five tackles.
Memorable moment: Immediately after coming in for Bishop, Smith nailed Lions RB Kevin Smith for no gain. He also made an open-field tackle – something the Packers defense has struggled to do all season – on TE Tony Scheffler.
Future outlook: Doesn’t Smith remind you a little bit of Bishop? He’s active, he’s explosive, and he seems to always be around when plays are made. As long as he shows the explosiveness and instincts he showed Thursday, he probably has the best chance of the three “unknowns” to remain a Packer for quite some time.——————