One of the position battles that is and will continue to be a heavy focus in Green Bay is at safety. Entrenched in one starting role is Morgan Burnett, who enters his fourth season and appears poised to take a step forward in becoming one of the team’s best defensive players. The other safety position is still up for grabs amongst Jerron McMillian, M.D. Jennings and Sean Richardson. This week, the team also signed undrafted free agent David Fulton from Chowan University (in North Carolina for those wondering).
With safety having been one of the team’s bigger needs heading into last month’s draft, the question seemed to be not “if” but “when” they would address the position. Among the top prospects were Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro, LSU’s Eric Reid, Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien and Florida’s Matt Elam. Surely one of those would be available when Green Bay picked at the 26th spot. That pick came and went, along with 10 others, and not one safety was selected.
Packers General Manager Ted Thompson has had a knack for standing pat at a position that he feels already has the depth and talent necessary to be effective. In 2010 and after starting running back Ryan Grant went down early in the season, the team seemingly needed another option. Marshawn Lynch and DeAngelo Williams were both rumored to be available via trade. Instead, Thompson stuck with the rotation of Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and James Starks. It’s no secret, by now, that Thompson prefers his own players and to develop them versus playing in free agency year in and year out. It appears that the Packers are, once again, exercising that mindset at safety.
Just prior to the draft, the Packers parted ways with long-time veteran Charles Woodson, who was moved to safety before last season. That left a hole and only raised more speculation that the team would look to add a safety early in the draft. Instead, they entered this spring’s organized team activities with Burnett, McMillian, Jennings and Richardson all splitting reps at practice.
In 2012, head coach Mike McCarthy wanted to find a way to get his young safeties on the field. Because Woodson was a versatile defender and the Packers lined up in nickel coverage often, it allowed the team to keep he and Burnett on the field while also giving some reps to both McMillian and Jennings. According to ProFootballFocus, McMillian was on the field for more than half of the team’s defensive snaps between weeks two and five. In week seven against the Rams, Woodson suffered the unfortunate collarbone injury that would sideline him until the postseason. Suddenly, getting Jennings and McMillian on the field became a necessity versus a luxury.
Early in the season, McMillian showed some flashes of what the team had hoped for when they drafted him. His speed and tenacity was helping him make plays. In week two against the Bears and quarterback Jay Cutler, McMillian logged his first career interception. In the week three game in Seattle, McMillian appeared to have made a very key interception during the fourth quarter. The pick would likely have helped the Packers run out the clock and secure a win. The play was called back due to a roughing the passer penalty and the interception was nullified, but it was another showcasing of what McMillian was capable of.
McMillian did also have his struggles. He was slated to play a role in run support but he was average, at best, during the early part of the season. After Woodson went down, the Packers opted to give Jennings more time opposite Burnett. McMillian saw his snaps decrease and was virtually splitting time with Jennings. By the time the postseason arrived, McMillian was on the field for a measly five total downs. In the divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers, it is safe to say that none of the Packers defenders had played well and were left with higher goals in 2013.
Coming into this year’s offseason workouts, McMillian was prepared for whatever circumstance came his way. Just prior to the draft, Tyler Dunne of the Journal-Sentinel published a piece on McMillian and his thoughts on whether or not the team would draft a safety. He maintained that it was not going to affect his approach and that he would continue to work hard towards securing the other starting safety spot. As mentioned earlier, Thompson tends to be partial towards his draftees and McMillian appears to have shown enough to garner that support.
A short while back, our own Marques Eversoll listed his top five Packers who are primed for a breakout season. McMillian is listed fifth, although it was between he and defensive end Mike Neal. With it becoming clear that the team will go with who they currently have at safety, they have to hope that McMillian can take that key step forward this season.
Size-wise, McMillian stands 5’11” and 207 lbs. While he is a tad on the short side for your prototypical NFL safety, his abilities allow him to be just as effective. McMillian has the speed to close on plays and with a year under his belt, he should be all the wiser in his coverage assignments. That alone can help him make a jump and become a bigger contributor in the defensive backfield.
In comparing McMillian to Jennings and Ricardson, he is the more talented player and has proven to be durable. Richardson battled injuries last season and was ultimately placed on injured reserve in early December. Richardson has the size and measurables to be an NFL safety, but he is coming off of surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck this past January. His health and ability to leapfrog both Jennings and McMillian will be a big question mark during this year’s training camp. Jennings is listed at 6’0″ but is a bit on the smaller size, weighing in at around 190 lbs. He saw significant time last season, but he isn’t as effective as McMillian in run support and has a tendency to get lost in coverage.
I have to think that Marques is on to something and I expect Jerron McMillian to stand head and shoulders above the others when the 2013 season starts. If he does claim the starting role and both he and Burnett take the big step forward that the team is counting on, the Packers secondary will once again become one of the top units in the league.——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: