Packers Safeties: One of the youngest groups on the current Green Bay Packers roster, this is a position that is expected to take a big step forward in 2013. The team will be without long-time veteran Charles Woodson and will rely on Morgan Burnett to assume that leadership role. Third-year player M.D. Jennings joins second-year player Jerron McMillian opposite Burnett with Sean Richardson likely in the fold as well.
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Where are we now:
Here are the current suspects:
Morgan Burnett (3rd round)
M.D. Jennings (UDFA)
Jerron McMillian (4th round)
Sean Richardson (UDFA)
Burnett was a steady rock for the Packers in 2012, playing in all 16 regular season games and both playoff games. After missing most of his rookie season of 2010 and being hampered by a hand injury in 2011, Burnett showed that he can be counted on and durable enough to play a full season. His play improved both in coverage and run support. The assumption is that he will continue that trend in 2013 and become one of the defensive leaders on this team.
Jennings platooned with the rookie McMillian opposite Burnett after Woodson went down. He doesn’t have blazing speed but he has a knack for sticking his nose into the play and is not afraid to get after the ball. He scored the team’s first interception return for a touchdown and had seemingly sealed a tough road win at Seattle before. . well, we all know that story by now. Jennings will certainly be a part of the team’s plans at safety in 2013 in one capacity or another. He is also a contributor on special teams so I fully expect him on the 2013 roster. For an undrafted free agent, Jennings has, at the very least, matched the expectations he had when he was brought in. He is trending upward and should continue on the path to exceeding them if he can stay healthy.
McMillian was a bit of a risky pick by GM Ted Thompson in the fourth round of last year’s draft. Many scouts had him slated in the fifth round or lower. Thompson liked what he saw in McMillian and decided to snag him before another team could land this potential blue chipper. McMillian has a solid build and good speed for that build. He has good ball skills as well as his ability to come up in run support. He struggled a bit in his rookie season, but showed nothing less than what the Packers hoped they had when they drafted him. Much like Jennings, McMillian has a solid chance to continue to grow into more of a full-time role in 2013 and will battle with Jennings for that role.
Richardson played very sparingly in 2012 and missed the team’s last five games after going on season-ending injured reserve with a back injury. He had surgery and is expected to be ready to resume football activities by the start of training camp. Richardson showed some flash in last year’s training camp and was able to land a roster spot as a result. He is depth at the safety position and I do not expect him to push for a starting spot, although anything can happen in August. Richardson was a special teams contributor and so I expect him to have every chance to return to the team in some capacity in 2013.
Where we want to be:
In 2012 the Packers struggled in pass coverage, much as they had during the 2011 season. It is obvious that the team still has not found a suitable replacement for Nick Collins and that is a tall order to begin with. Green Bay is hoping that, much like Collins, Burnett can turn the corner in 2013, his fourth season in the league. It would give the secondary a huge boost. Position coach Darren Perry has done well, so far, in bringing Burnett along and was able to improve the play of both Jennings and McMillian as the 2012 season progressed.
Burnett was the team’s leading tackler this past season and that’s not typically what you want to see in a 3-4 scheme that is supposed to contend for a Super Bowl title. Six of the team’s interceptions came from the safety position and both of Burnett’s came in the same game. This is an area where the Packers need to improve in pass coverage and need to see the young guys step up in that capacity.
If Dom Capers returns as Defensive Coordinator, I expect to see him employ more of the typical zone coverage and therefore the safeties will be tasked with preventing the deep pass and big play. Don’t mistake that as my saying that they should use the zone, but it’s Capers’ M.O. and zebras don’t change their stripes. I’m just going off of historical tendencies in that scenario.
With the struggles that the Packers had with Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and with Chicago’s Matt Forte always a threat out of the backfield, run support will be a need area for the defense and the safeties will be called upon to clean up.
Beyond containing those top running backs, the Packers also face mobile quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III. It’s near certain that both will get into the second and third level at times during those contests. Any lack of improvement in how the Packers played Kaepernick this past season means more footage of the Green Bay safeties watching him run wild again.
The mental aspect of the safety position is one that improves with experience and the Packers safeties will need to take a step forward here. Being assignment-sure is critical to a player’s success and is the difference between a big play or an incompletion or more importantly, a win or a loss. Film study during this offseason is important for this young group to prepare to get to the next level in 2013, and they need to if this team wants to get back to the conference championship game.
How Do We Get There?
With safety not being a hole on the Green Bay roster, free agency is an unlikely place that Thompson will look for any help or depth. As far as the unrestricted free agents, the top young names that stand out to me in this talent pool are Jarius Byrd (Buffalo), Kenny Phillips (NY Giants), William Moore (Atlanta), Dashon Goldson (San Francisco), Stevie Brown (NY Giants) and Patrick Chung (New England).
Byrd is likely headed for a big payday and while his name has surfaced in conversations surrounding potential targets for the Packers, he will likely command too much for those conversations to get hot. I expect the Giants to bring Phillips back and the same for Atlanta with Moore. Super Bowl teams have a tendency to lose some key pieces and I can see Goldson moving on, but he is also likely too high-priced for Green Bay to consider at a position that is not a desperate need.
Brown and Chung could end becoming bargains after the previous few sign their big-money deals. I see Brown as a potential flash in the pan and who could end up not playing up to the deal he signs this offseason. A bit of a “buyer beware” scenario, in my opinion. He played well in spurts but disappeared at the end of the season when the Giants needed him most. Chung may opt to return to New England where there is always seemingly a chance to win another Super Bowl. He will want to start wherever he lands and I can see a team with a deeper need at safety throwing some good money at him to lure him their way. That team likely won’t be the Packers.
The draft is the safest bet for the Packers to address the safety spot. The top five prospects entering the 2013 NFL draft are Kenny Vaccaro (Texas), Erid Reid (LSU), Matt Elam (Florida), Baccari Rambo (Georgia) and Phillip Thomas (Fresno State).
Vaccaro and Reid are both projected in the first round and I don’t expect the Packers to address this position that soon. Elam and Rambo project in the second round and this could be a possibility if Thompson likes one of these players enough. As I have mentioned before, the second round has been a gold mine for Thompson over the past five seasons. Taking a safety this high would tell us what he feels they currently have at that position.
I don’t see Thompson looking to the undrafted free agency pool at an anchor position on the defense. Never say never, but it would take an injury and no other viable option to shore up the position for this to be where Thompson adds depth to the safety position.
In closing, Green Bay may add a name or two to the mix at safety or they may leave it to the current set altogether. Much will depend on which players present themselves in the draft and if any of them see their stock rise after the Combine and pro days. It’s not a big need as it stands for the 2013 Packers team, but if the right player is on the board and the can take a step forward, it could end up being an area that looks quite a bit different than it has over the past few seasons.——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: