Three-year comparison: Morgan Burnett vs. Nick Collins

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Morgan Burnett and Nick Collins
Morgan Burnett and Nick Collins

When the Packers were forced to release Nick Collins prior to the 2012 season, they were left with a gaping hole at the most important position in the secondary.

Collins, a three-time Pro Bowler, was among the best safeties in football at the time he suffered a career-threatening neck injury in 2011, while his counterpart, Morgan Burnett, was coming off a season-ending injury of his own in his second NFL season.

Burnett’s rookie year (2010) ended in week four, and Collins’ 2011 season–and possibly career–ended in week two. Those six games comprised the entirety of the Collins/Burnett Era at safety for the Packers.

In 2010, the Packers selected Burnett with the 71st overall pick in the third round. Three years later and entering the final year of his rookie contract, Burnett may be poised to fill Collins’ shoes as the team’s key defensive playmaker.

Athletically, Burnett compares favorably to the former second-team All-Pro safety.

At the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine, Burnett put up impressive numbers in the tests that best measure a player’s range at the safety position. He clocked a 6.87 in the three-cone drill, leaped 11 feet-8 inches in the broad jump, posted a 39.5-inch vertical jump and rushed out to a 1.57 10-yard split.

Burnett tested better than Collins in nearly every category, but Collins, a college cornerback, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds, which trumped Burnett’s 4.51.

Obviously, athletic ability doesn’t necessarily determine a player’s on-field ability. If it did, Bengals safety and workout warrior Taylor Mays would be one of the best in the league–and he’s not even close.

As a rookie for the 4-12 Packers, Collins started all 16 games and showed flashes of his seemingly limitless potential. But those glimpses were rare, as Collins slowly made the transformation from a little-known defensive back from Bethune-Cookman to a starting safety for the Green Bay Packers.

It wasn’t until his fourth NFL season that Collins put it all together and made his first of three Pro Bowls. His first three seasons were relatively modest, as he started 45 of a potential 48 games, racking up four interceptions and four forced fumbles.

Nick Collins: First 3 NFL seasons
Nick Collins: First 3 NFL seasons

Burnett, coming from Georgia Tech, didn’t face the same transition that Collins did entering the NFL from a small school. But regardless, holding a starting spot at a position that requires sound communication can be a rough wake-up call for a 21-year-old player.

Fast forward to 2013, and a 24-year-old Burnett now hopes to see a spike in production similar to Collins in his fourth season. And through three years, his numbers are better than Collins’ despite playing in nine fewer games.

Like Collins, Burnett forced four fumbles in his first three seasons, but his six interceptions trump Collins’ one and his three sacks outweigh Collins’ zero. This doesn’t include tackles, which is an all-but-pointless statistic when comparing two players.

Morgan Burnett: First 3 NFL seasons
Morgan Burnett: First 3 NFL seasons

Expecting Burnett to duplicate Collins’ fourth-year production may be unrealistic. In 2008, Collins intercepted seven passes and returned them for 295 yards and three touchdowns. It was one of the most productive seasons a safety has ever put together.

But if Burnett can build on his impressive 2012 campaign, the Packers defense will likely improve as a whole. And with uncertainty at the other safety spot, Burnett will be counted upon to be a big-time player–and a leader–in the secondary this upcoming season.

It would be foolish to expect Burnett to be Collins because, again, at the time of Collins’ release, one could make a case that he was the best player in the league at his position. But through three years, Burnett has shown similar flashes to a young Collins.

Unless the Packers bring back Charles Woodson or sign another veteran, Burnett will play alongside Jerron McMillian and/or M.D. Jennings this season. Jennings started 10 games in 2012 and has added five pounds of muscle in the offseason, while McMillian has the starting job in his crosshairs.

In Collins’ first three seasons in the NFL, he played alongside Mark Roman, Marquand Manuel and Atari Bigby. During his breakout year in 2008, Collins shared the defensive backfield with Bigby, Aaron Rouse and Charlier Peprah.

This season, Burnett, McMillian and Jennings will benefit from a deep and talented group of cornerbacks. Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House form one of the best four-man rotations in the NFL.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson envisioned Burnett playing alongside Collins, forming the team’s long-term duo at safety. An injury may have forced Collins to hang up his cleats earlier than expected, but Burnett may be just getting started.

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Follow @MJEversoll

Marques is a Journalism student, serving as the Sports Editor of UW-Green Bay\'s campus newspaper The Fourth Estate and a Packers writer at Jersey Al\'s AllGBP.com. Follow Marques on Twitter @MJEversoll.

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  • zac5

    Burnett doesn’t need to be the next Nick Collins for this defence to be successful. Morgan is a very solid footballer in his own right and will probably continue to improve.

    If the front seven can continue its improvement in pressuring the QB from a dismal 2011 (I’m pretty optimistic this will happen), interceptions could be a common sight with this secondary. The only covenant being the other starting safety whether it’s McMillan or Jennings, not being a liability.

  • Chad Toporski

    Not to be picky, because this was a great article, but I think Polamalu takes the award for best safety over Collins during that time. Though the case could be made that Polamalu was starting his decline around that time.

    Either way, Burnett is the veteran at the position now. He has to act like it and play like it.

    • Chad Lundberg

      My brother and I talk Football nonstop. I once asked him to think of a moment where Nick Collins blew an assignment, and he realized he couldn’t think of one.

      Troy Polamalu is great, but he’s injury prone and many overlook just how much he blows it.

      You could make a strong argument that Collins was better than Polamalu.

      • Stroh

        Collins and Polamalu were very different type of Safeties. I think Collins was ONE of the top 3 safeties in the NFL a couple years ago, when Polamalu and Reed were still at their best. They were just very different players. Can’t say which was better, but were each among the best few at their positions.

        • Chad Toporski

          Definitely agree with that statement.

          • Jose

            They were different kind of players! Collins was a Free Safety and Polamalu is Strong Safety. Collins was better anyways IMO

            • Stroh

              Again it depends what you ask of them. If I wanted a safety that could play at the LOS, I would clearly take Polamalu or even Reed over Collins, but if I wanted a true Centerfield type Safety, I might have taken Collins over both. I don’t think Collins was as highly regardeded as he should have, but I think your over the top to say Collins was better than either Polamalu or Reed.

    • PackersRS

      Ed Reed.

  • Brooklyn81

    I miss Nick Collins. Just imagine what it would be like if he and Burnett were still maning the back end together but everything happens for a reason. IM real excited to see Mcmillian come in and compete for the opposite of Burnett. And i would take a healthy Nick Collins in his prime over polamalu and day. Yeah IM sure a lot would disagree but Collins was one of my favorite Packers and i like his style of play more.

  • Tarynfor12

    I’m a lot less worried about the play or hoped for play of Burnett as to the play of Nick Perry and the new “I want to be the greatest to play the game” Datone Jones.

  • http://allgbp.com/category/authors/jason-perone/ Jason Perone

    I try not to think about “what if” with Collins because it WAS such a huge loss to this defense and he’s clearly done playing. I hope Burnett takes that leap.

  • Carl407

    Mcmillian & Jennings both seem dedicated to improvement,I say let the completion begin.Can’t wait to watch.

  • tjc

    Collins was a great player, and I’m nostalgic about him being gone… but I remember “missed tackle by Collins” regularly coming out of the announcers’ mouths when he was playing. Burnett does a solid job.

    • Oppy

      Collins’ first three years were definitely sporadic. Packers fans used to lament Collins play early on. The light hadn’t come on yet.

      That said, how Nick Collins developed into one of the top three safeties in the NFL (Polamalu, Reed, Collins) should be a firm reminder to Packers fans that draft and develop is a PROCESS, it’s not about IMMEDIACY in results.

      Collins wasn’t getting “Missed Tackle Collins” comments much after year 3…

      • PackersRS

        He was still missing tackles and, more importantly, taking wrong angles in the run game. Let’s not get revisionist and say he was a perfect player because that’s not true.

        But, as you and others have said, he did it very sporadically. Most importantly, his play as a deep safety against the pass was only surpassed by Ed Reed. Collins’ range was something else, his timing, ball skills and understanding of both his assignments and tells by receivers were excellent as well.

        I was a huge fan, since his 08 season he had matured into one of the best safeties in the league, and one of the best Packers safeties of all time (I’d put him close with Butler, different, complementary players…)

        Damn. He was 27. Such a shame. Curse Jonathan Stewart’s butt!

  • ith

    is sean richardson even in the discussion anymore, or is he being left in the cold for a reason when the safety talk starts?

    • cow42

      maybe because he’s not good?

      • Oppy

        Try, “Maybe because he suffered a semi-serious neck injury at the end of last season that landed him on IR and we don’t know if he’s fully recovered yet?”

        Good lord, Cow.. You just won’t be happy until you find a way to be miserable, will you?

    • Stroh

      I would love to see Richardson get into the discussion. I think he’s probably another year away from being ready to get into the discussion at Safety. His size and measurables are really intriguing, more so than McMillan IMO. But he’s mostly an athlete at this point I think.

  • Oppy

    Passes defensed would be a nice stat to use to compare safety play, especially if combined with targets so we could formulate a percentage of passes defensed.

    Also, I would argue that tackles can be a useful metric.. Even better if we can sort out “in the box” tackles.

  • Martin

    This article is terrible. Comparing their stats over their first three years proves/disproves nothing. Because Burnett had one more sack as safety that means something? They’re different types of safeties too. Awful

    • Stroh

      I don’t see anything wrong w/ it. Collins was a 2nd rd pick and Burnett a 3rd, indicating both had some aspects of their games that they needed to improve. Both have excellent athleticism and both were playmakers in college. Both had a lot of INT’s in college that indicate that along w/ their athleticism they should be able to make plays in the NFL. Seems to me they are very similar players in the NFL. The Packers want Safeties that are interchangeable so as to disguise coverages better.

      The fact that Collins took a huge leap forward in year 4, and Burnett is entering yr 4 now, makes it easy to hope that Burnett will take a similar leap forward.

      In what way don’t you consider Collins and Burnett different type of Safeties?

  • Chad Lundberg

    I think the Packers got enough from this draft that we don’t need a superb secondary, and the only thing missing from that secondary is (presumably) a safety opposite to Morgan Burnett anyway. Sure, it would be nice to have one, but I believe the Packers have beefed up enough to finally compete with the 49er’s and Giants.

  • KB

    Even with the spot opposite Burnett still not spoken for I think GB has one of the best secondaries in the NFL. We all expect Burnett to continue to grow especially considering how young he still is but the way the defense will improve the most is through pressures. The front 7 is the key to this defense. If Datone Jones, Nick Perry, Mike Neal, and Clay Matthews can consistently get pressures this defense will surprise a lot of people, Even Packer fans.

    • amklawiter

      I agree, pressure up front will make everybody’s job on the back end much easier, similar to 2010. When Tramon and the other d-backs can jump routes because they know the QB is under duress, that’s when the turnovers occur and plays are made.