It was a formula that paid dividends for the Green Bay Packers the last time around so GM Ted Thompson figured it was worth trying again.
In his first draft as head of the Packers football operations in 2005, Thompson selected a player from a small school who in time had a big impact on the organization. In the second round of the 2005 draft, Thompson selected safety Nick Collins from small Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. At the time, it was viewed as a reach taking a player from such a small school so early in the draft. Many wondered what the then-rookie general manager was doing.
The “reach” paid off big time as Collins became the best safety the Packers have had since the retirement of Leroy Butler (no offense to Darren Sharper). Collins will forever immortalized in Packers lore for his highlight reel pick-six of Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLV and the celebration following that was the cover image for the Green Bay Press Gazette following the Packers’ victory.
Fast forward to this past spring. Thompson again found himself in need of safety, ironically because Collins suffered a likely career-ending neck injury in Week 2 last season. Thompson found a diamond In the rough in Collins, so Thompson may have thought he could do it again.
Enter Jerron McMillian, the Packers’ fourth round pick in the 2012 draft. Like Collins, McMillian hails from a small college—Maine. Perhaps a state university isn’t necessarily “small” but since it’s Maine I doubt many people will consider his university a powerhouse.
The tale of the tape on McMillian from video and the scouting combine is that he’s a very physical player, a shutdown safety if there ever was one. He plays the run well, but struggles with the pass. McMillian rarely misses a tackle (music to Packer fans’ ears after the debacle of the 2011 unit) and is an effective blitzer.
Sound familiar? While he may not be Pro Bowl-ready right out of the gate for the Packers, McMillian’s speed and physical play will fit in well on a Dom Capers-coached unit that prides itself on being aggressive and forcing turnovers. He may not beat out Charlie Peprah or M.D. Jennings in training camp but Capers and his staff can take McMillian’s current skillset and mold him into a decent safety that can push Peprah or Jennings should either of them struggle.
This isn’t to say McMillian needs to be another Collins for his selection to be considered a success. If Peprah can return to 2010 form after regressing in 2011 and Morgan Burnett continues to develop the pressure will be off McMillian and he can learn the NFL game at his pace. The Packers desperately missed Collins in 2011, and Peprah and Burnett failed to fill the hole in the secondary.
Will the Packers try to mold McMillian in Collins’ image? Given how large a role he played on the defense, McCarthy and Capers don’t seem to have much of a choice. Collins was a hard hitting ball hawk and Peprah and Burnett definitely did not fit that kind of model. The Packers need a playmaker at safety and if Charles Wood son is being rotated in and out of his cornerback position, the Packers need to have someone else ready.
Will that be McMillian or will it be veterans Peprah, Burnett or Jennings?
If McMillian’s selection just pushes Peprah, Burnett and Jennings harder and their level of play increases, then McMillian’s selection could already be viewed as a success especially if he develops into the player Thompson thinks he can become. Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy both have said that have too many good players at one position is a good problem to have and with safety being a weak link on the defense in 2011, nothing would be a more pleasant surprise than to have the safeties go from one of thinnest spots on the roster to one of the deepest.
While he may be relegated to mainly special teams play for much of 2012, McMillian should still see that he can make an immediate impact on the roster. As mentioned earlier, the success of Peprah, Burnett and Jennings is nowhere close to being a certainty. The window could open earlier than expected for McMillian and he needs to be ready to go.
Packer Nation badly misses Collins but with luck and some shrewd drafting by Thompson, perhaps the next generation is already on the roster.