Aaron Kampman's career came in three parts. He began his career with the Packers and for his first four seasons he was what he termed "power end" and he was a solid strong-side end for the club.
Then he has his peak seasons as a pass rusher, averaging 12½ sacks a season for three years from 2006 through 2008.
His last phase was as a player who ended his last three seasons on injured reserve with knee injuries.
Coming out of Iowa, when he was All-Big Ten as a senior and ended his career with 342 tackles, not a lot was expected from Kampman. He was a fifth-round pick by the Packers in 2002 and likely was expected to be a backup for a few years. However, an injury to Vonnie Holliday his rookie season gave Kampman a chance to start and he performed adequately. His coach, Mike Sherman said that his emergence helped mitigate the loss of some players that got hurt during the year, referring to Holliday and Joe Johnson.
In 2003 Joe Johnson began the season as the power end with Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila as the "Elephant" or rush end but Johnson went down as he had the previous season when he began that season as the rush end. His injury left the power end spot to Kampman and once again he performed adequately.
The following season the left end position was Kampman's and he again teamed with rush end Gbaja-Biamila with the latter getting the sacks and glory and the former with the dirty work. Kampman led the Packers defensive lineman in tackles and Gbaja-Biamila led in sacks.
His tough gritty style drew compliments from his coaches, especially Sherman, who explained, "(Kampman) is a guy who day after day, game after game gets better. He'll continue to get better not just this season but in his career because his work ethic is phenomenal."
Sherman went on, "(He's) a blue-collar type of guy . . . a hard hat type of guy who comes to work every day and gives you his best."
Sometimes those kinds of comments are code for "not very athletic" and that may have been the case for the 6-4, 286-pounder. He certainly didn't have the power or explosiveness of Vonnie Holliday or even Joe Johnson, who in his prime was an excellent defensive end, but he was a player who was always learning, used his hands well, and used leverage to "play bigger than his size." He was noted for studying film to pick up clues on opponents.
His defensive coordinator said, "He's a guy who uses tactical clues so when the ball's being snapped he can take all the scouting and game-plan information and use it in an instant."
His progress in 2004 had other teams were taking notice. After that season Kampman was a restricted free agent and the division rival Vikings offered him $1.2 on an offer sheet, which the Packers quickly matched.
The Packers made a wise decision. In 2005 Kampman again led Packers d-linemen in tackles and got to the quarterback 6.5 times for sacks just 1.5 behind the total of the rush end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila who had 8.0.
With new defensive coordinator Bob Sanders being hired by the Packers in 2006 (Kampman's fourth defensive coordinator in five seasons) the responsibilities of the left end were different than in his previous seasons. No longer was there a power end and a rush end. Both defensive ends were allowed to get after the quarterback. To prepare for the new scheme Kampman dropped about 20 pounds and worked all off-season on improving his pass rush skills and it paid off.
In 2006 he out-sacked Gbaja-Biamila 15.5 to 6.0 and was credited with 30 quarterback hits. His sack total was bested only by outside linebacker Shawne Merriman who led the NFL with 17.0 sacks and he was rewarded with his first Pro Bowl appearance and was Second-team All-Pro as well. That's pretty good for a guy who thought of himself as "someone who kind of flew under the radar."
The praise continued the following year. In 2007 Kampman was named All-Pro by Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated. Dr. Z wrote, "Kampman played run and pass . . . Kampman, who seemed to get less relief than anyone else on that D-line, got the call on that basis."
Kampman finished with 12.5 sacks and was again Second-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler.
With the Sanders scheme, Kampman went from being a run-stuffer who began each as "like he was in mud," because of the technique he had to play as a power end, to one of the NFL's best pass rushers.
In the three years in the Sanders defense Kampman totaled 37.0 sacks the second-most of any defensive lineman in the league just a half-sack behind pass rusher extraordinaire Jared Allen who had 37.5 sacks. What's more is that Kampman totaled 84 quarterback hits in that span while Allen, who played the right side and was not known as a great run defender, totaled 67.
In addition, the analytic site Pro Football Focus had Kampman as having the most pressures (197) in the NFL in those three years, raking second in all three seasons. It was a successful run and very surprising given the way Kampman had to play earlier in his career. Who knew he could be an elite pass rusher?
The problem was this: In 2008 the Packers were 6-10 and ranked 22nd in points allowed and 20th in total yards allowed so the defense was not as successful as Kampman. Head coach Mike Sherman decided to make a change and brought in Dom Capers to be his new defensive guru.
Capers was a 3-4 defense guy and was going to install that scheme with the Packers. To accommodate the change Kampman was moved to left outside linebacker.
Oh, it was all pre-planned.
Packers brass explained that the switch was going to help Kampman, that it would not be much of a switch. He was to be the "Kevin Greene" of the defense, referring to Caper's All-Pro Sam 'backer when he coached the Steelers and Panthers. In fact, they hired Greene to tutor Kampman as the outside linebackers coach, to work with him, teach the techniques of the new position.
Little did they know the last part of Kampman's career was going to begin that season. The Packers improved to 11-5 and the defense ranked second in the NFL in total defense and seventh in scoring defense but Kampman was not a big part of that. Defensive Rookie of the Year Clay Matthews was the one who reaped the benefits of the 3-4. Kampman struggled with 3.5 sacks in the first nine games and then blew out his the ACL in his left knee being placed on injured reserve for the rest of the season.
So, in 2010, Kampman thought it was time for a change and to get back to defensive end. He signed a four-year $26 million contract ($11 million guaranteed) with the Jacksonville Jaguars in March. Said Kampman, "I'm excited to put my hand on the ground, very excited. I have a burning desire to do that."
It went according to plan, for a while that is. Kampman (now playing right defensive end) opened the season with a 1.5 sack, six quarterback-hit day against Denver. Through eight games he had four sacks but more importantly was getting consistent pressure with 16 hits on quarterbacks and 30 pressures until . . . the right knee went. In this case, it was during a non-contact drill at practice.
The knees had now become a problem. It gave Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio pause. He decided that Kampman's role in 2011, when he became healthy, was to be as a third-down rusher. Kampman had been an every-down player his entire career and tried to "get his head around" the role and ultimately accepted it. Del Rio thought that if he played 70,75 snaps a game all year, "I am not sure what he'd have left" so the plan was for the 32-year-old to play about 45 snaps a game.
It was a good thought but it never got implemented. Kampman's right knee never responded and he was inactive for ten of the first thirteen weeks, playing in just three games. After that, he was put on injured reserve for the third straight season.
He tried to give it a go in 2012 but in June the Jaguars made the decision to release Kampman ending his NFL career.
It was a good career. No, not a stellar career, a workman-like career that had some highs and lows but Kampman's legacy will be how a player thought to be just a run-stuffing power-type defensive end transformed into one of the NFL's best rushers for three years through an extraordinary work ethic and desire.
Aaron Kampman—he was pretty good and worth remembering.