When you have an injury list as long as the Green Bay Packers had last season, there are several potential candidates for the team’s Comeback Player of the Year award in 2014.
Will Bryan Bulaga return to form? Could Casey Hayward resume his rise to the top of the list as one of the league’s best young corners after an injury-plagued sophomore season? Could Jermichael Finley or Johnny Jolly somehow come back from neck surgery and contribute again?
All would be great stories, but the Packers’ greatest comeback from a player in 2014 very likely may come from a player that played most of last season but struggled badly. He’s a player that once showed great promise, but had a brutal season in 2013.
That player is safety Morgan Burnett.
It is no secret that the Packers had terrible safety play in 2013. The combination of Burnett and the now (thankfully) departed M.D. Jennings was the league’s worst last season with neither safety producing an interception or a forced fumble. The position was the Achilles heel of the Green Bay defense (along with the aforementioned injuries) and it was at the top of the list of positions general manager Ted Thompson had to improve this offseason.
Thompson responded by not re-signing Jennings (who later signed with the Chicago Bears) and drafting Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix from Alabama in the NFL Draft a few weeks ago. These two moves alone have already improved the Packers at the safety position.
But what of Burnett? Well, after the 2012 season he signed a new contract with Green Bay worth $24.75 million over four years with $8.25 million guaranteed. Thompson is not about to just dump that contract only a year after it was signed, no matter how poor the performance was in 2013.
Burnett had a rough 2013, but there is every reason to expect a strong rebound from him this season. Burnett functions best when he is opposite a strong free safety and Jennings was not that. Since he was drafted in 2010, Burnett spent his first full season and the first part of his second learning from Nick Collins. Collins was one of the league’s best safeties and his neck injury in 2011 sent the Green Bay defense into a tailspin from which it still has yet to fully recover from.
After Collins went down, Burnett became a full-time starter and played alongside Charlie Peprah and Charles Woodson. While neither were the caliber of Collins at the safety position (Woodson of course being a potential Hall of Fame player at cornerback), they were still serviceable enough that Burnett was still able to show some potential.
In his first full season as a starter in 2011, he had three interceptions, one sack and had 107 combined tackles. Burnett followed that up in 2012 with two interceptions, two sacks and 123 combined tackles. Both those seasons saw Burnett starting opposite Woodson or Peprah.
Woodson and Peprah both were out of Green Bay heading into 2013 and Burnett said said starting beside Jennings. Burnett’s results for 2013? Zero interceptions, zero sacks and 96 combined tackles. After signing the aforementioned contract before the season began, Burnett had a dud performance last year.
What these numbers prove, if anything, is that is Burnett benefits from having a competent safety playing opposite him and Jennings was a prime example of incompetence in 2013. Jennings could rarely turn his head to see the ball, let alone make a play on it. He was unproven last season and he showed the Packers he couldn’t get the job done.
Burnett has shown enough flashes that Thompson felt warranted to sign him to that contract after 2012 and he certainly was justified. The Packers don’t need Burnett to be Nick Collins, they just need him to be solid.
With the drafting of Clinton-Dix, the Packers have a smart player and a true “center field” type of safety. He also may not be Collins but anything would be an improvement over what Green Bay got from their safeties in 2013. That alone should help the Packers show visible improvement on defense.
If Clinton-Dix just makes a a few interceptions and is a fundamental tackler, then the Packers should be fine and Burnett should improve as well. He has shown the ability to be a strong player and can hit when he has to. Competent play opposite him should allow Burnett to recapture the potential he showed in 2011 and 2012.
Burnett may not make the Pro Bowl but that would stop him from potentially earning Comeback Player of the year or at the very least Most Improved.
The Packers and their fans are counting on it.——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke