Erik Walden didn’t look like much of a player when the Green Bay Packers picked him up earlier this season.
The linebacker had been waived by the Miami Dolphins and when the Packers signed him, joined his third team in his fourth NFL season. Walden had a grand total of 23 tackles — all on special teams — before signing with the Packers.
Not exactly a guy you’d be comfortable with in the starting lineup, but that’s exactly the position the Packers found themselves in when Frank Zombo went down with a sprained knee in the week 14 loss to Detroit.
Walden started the Packers’ final three regular season games and their wild card win over Philadelphia. Surprisingly, he’s played fairly well, a fact highlighted by a 12-tackle, three-sack performance in week 17 that nabbed him a defensive player of the week award.
In fact, there have been some whispers Walden is actually a better player than Zombo. He may even be better than Brad Jones, who held down the same position before going on injured reserve after week seven and thrusting Zombo into the starting lineup.
This wouldn’t be the first time this season the Packers found a better player sitting on their bench after a starter got injured — Desmond Bishop has made Nick Barnett a complete afterthought at inside linebacker.
Jones started five games, Zombo eight and Walden four, including the playoff game, for the Packers, this season.
The sample data is small, but here’s what it tells us. Note that we only looked at starts and not overall statistics, which would be skewed towards Jones and Zombo.
Jones had 25 tackles, no sacks and no forced fumbles in his five starts. That’s an average of five tackles per game and no game-changing plays.
Zombo has 30 tackles in his eight starts, three sacks and one forced fumble, an average of 3.75 tackles and .5 game-changing plays per game.
In four starts, Walden has 23 tackles and five game-changing plays. That’s 5.75 tackles and 1.25 game-changing plays per game.
Things can change at any time, of course. Walden could go out and lay an egg this weekend and shift these averages back in favor of someone else, but it’s pretty clear the guy off the street has outperformed his predecessors as a starter at outside linebacker.