16

June

Don’t Forget About Safety Sean Richardson

Safety Sean Richardson. Photo credit: Royalbroil (Wikimedia Commons)

No one will argue that the safety position was a major deficiency for the Green Bay Packers during the 2013-14 season. They didn’t generate a single interception and they frequently looked lost in coverage. Now, as we enter the 2014-15 campaign, it’s poised to be a position of strength.

For starters, gone is M.D. Jennings, who is now competing for a roster spot in Chicago. Entering is first-round draft selection Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who, according to many, fell as a gift to the Packers at the 21st spot.

Also garnering headlines is versatile defensive back Micah Hyde. Last year, he played mainly in the nickel substitution packages or covering the slot receiver. However, during the most recent OTAs, he took first-team reps at safety alongside Morgan Burnett.

With the combination of Clinton-Dix and Hyde competing for playing time next to Burnett, it appears the Packers are set at the starting safety tandem.

Third-year player Sean Richardson would beg to differ. His career almost never got started when he sustained a serious neck injury during his 2012 rookie campaign, but now that he’s fully healed, he’s poised to make some noise in the defensive secondary as he enters another season in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ system.

It’s easy to forget about Richardson because he went undrafted in 2012 and then free missed extensive time during the most crucial first two years of a young player’s developmental window.

However, his measurables cannot be ignored. When compared to Clinton-Dix, he is bigger (6’2″ and 216 lbs. to 6’1″ and 208 lbs.), faster (4.52 secs to 4.58 secs in the 40-yard dash), stronger (22 reps to 11 reps at the bench press), more explosive (38.5″ to 33.0″ inches in the vertical jump and 128″ to 119″ in the broad jump), and more agile (7.01 secs to 7.16 secs) in the 3-cone drill).

These aren’t knocks against Clinton-Dix at all because he is considered a first-round talent and should make an immediate impact.

It simply means we can’t forget about Richardson because he is a rare combination of size, strength, and speed.

Richardson has elite measurables, but he simply needs time to develop his game. He went undrafted because scouts thought his coverage skills fell short of what his athleticism should dictate.

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26

May

Xs and Os: Rolling Safety Defense

First round selection Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is an excellent rolling safety.

First round selection Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is an excellent rolling safety.

When the Green Bay Packers selected safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the 2014 draft, they were hoping they found the last missing defensive back needed to bring defensive coordinator Dom Caper’s single-high safety defensive blueprint to life.

Last week on our No Huddle Radio podcast, Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq on Twitter) from Optimum Scouting briefly discussed how the Packers may use Clinton-Dix, particularly because he’s very good at rolling in coverage.

Clinton-Dix played in Nick Saban’s pro-style defense at the University of Alabama. The ability to roll safeties is one hallmark of a pro-style defense. Both schemes of Capers and Saban roll safeties, making Clinton-Dix a logical draft pick.

We now know two very important aspects of Capers’ defense:

  1. He prefers to play a single-high safety coverage. I previously wrote about it here.
  2. He, and Clinton-Dix’s University of Alabama, likes to roll the safeties in coverage.

For this article, we’ll look briefly look at what rolling safety coverage is.

What is rolling safety coverage?

As is par for the course in this column, we’ll approach this topic as an oversimplification for illustrative purposes.

Essentially, rolling safeties means they are not “locked” into playing one area of the field, one player, or one zone responsibility on defense. They must be able to move around the field and match the formation and/or the pass pattern deployment the offense runs.

In other words, they “roll” match some aspect of the offense.

We will use the cover 1 defense as our current example to discuss rolling safeties. Keep in mind, however, there are near-infinite ways a defense can roll their safeties. Since we’ve only previously broken down the cover 1, we’ll stick with that as our example.

In the cover 1, there are two main ways the defense can roll the safeties:

  1. Roll to the strength of the formation (formation matching defense).
  2. Roll to the depth of the pass patterns (pattern matching defense).

1. Roll to the Strength of the Formation

In the cover 1 defense, the deep safety (usually the free safety) is responsible for the deep half all by himself. He needs to cover anyone entering the zone and drive towards the ball once it is in flight.

Cover1-Fig1

22

January

M.D. Jennings: 2013 Green Bay Packers Evaluation and Report Card

M.D. Jennings

M.D. Jennings

1) Introduction:  Green Bay Packers safety M.D. Jennings entered the 2013 season primed to compete with Jerron McMillian for the starting safety spot opposite Morgan Burnett.  In fact, the Packers largely brought Jennings back to push McMillian, who they had really hoped would win the job.  After splitting reps nearly evenly in 2012, Jennings won the starting role.  That McMillian was released in early December for his poor play and attitude says something about the quality of that competition to begin with.  Many expected Packers general manager Ted Thompson to address the safety position in last year’s draft, which had quite a few high-value options to choose from.  That wasn’t the case and the Packers banked on either Jennings or McMillian taking a step forward.  That also wasn’t the case.  While Jennings was durable and started every game, he was rarely a factor and if brought back in 2014, it would be solely for competition or special teams purposes.

2) Profile:

Melvin Delanie “M.D.” Jennings

  • Age: 25
  • Born: 7/25/1988 in Grenada, MS
  • Height: 6’0″
  • Weight: 195
  • College: Arkansas State
  • Rookie Year: 2011
  • NFL Experience: 3 years

Career Stats and more

3) Expectations coming into the season:  Jennings was given the opportunity to win a starting spot but was largely expected to merely be depth at the safety position in 2013.  After Packers general manager Ted Thompson chose not to address the safety position in the draft or in free agency, the door was open for Jennings to take a step forward and secure his role on the team.  After making a few big plays in 2012, the hope was that Jennings would make a jump from year two to year three and become a diamond in the rough to add to Thompson’s list.  The Packers needed that complimentary player next to Burnett who could cover and flash their ball skills.

11

November

“Reoccurring Issues” Doom Packers Again, McCarthy vows Action

Will someone in the Packers organization get the pink slip on Monday?

Yes, the Packers are all beat up. Yes, the injury situation keeps going from bad to worse to seriously, WTF? Yes, the Packers are down to their third-string quarterback.

But not all of the issues dragging the Packers down during this ugly two-game home losing streak can be blamed on the quarterback or injuries.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy seemed to acknowledge this after Sunday’s loss to the Eagles and vowed to take action to address “reoccurring issues” plaguing the Packers on Monday.

That phrase — “reoccurring issues” — caused Twitter to light up on Sunday night. What could McCarthy possibly mean by “reoccurring issues,” and how will they be addressed on Monday?

Firings? Benchings? More angry press conferences? All of the above? None of the above?

You can CAST YOUR VOTE below…

I have a few theories:

Dom Capers gets fired
Capers’ defense helped the Packers win a Super Bowl in 2010 and…that’s about it. The defense has been the weak link on this team for much of Capers five-plus years calling the shots. The problems seem to be the same every season: Bad tackling, lack of toughness and confusion in the secondary. Has McCarthy had enough?

I don’t see the Packers making a drastic move like this during the season, but you never know. I wouldn’t be opposed to it — firing a coordinator during the season worked for the Ravens last season — but would an internal replacement like Darren Perry or Winston Moss really be an upgrade? Maybe…

M.D. Jennings cut
He was benched on Sunday and hasn’t improved much during his time in Green Bay. Jeremy Ross got the boot after several major screw ups. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jennings is next.

Marshall Newhouse cut
What’s the point of keeping Newhouse around at this point? It’s like he’s afraid of contact. The Packers could get equal or better production from a street free agent.

Tramon Williams cut
Nah, not happening. Especially if Casey Hayward is hurt again.

Tramon Williams benched
This I could see happening. But what does getting benched mean in this secondary? They’re in dime and nickel a lot. I doubt a benching would result in Tramon never seeing the field again.

29

September

Could the Packers go with Burnett and Banjo at safety?

Chris Banjo's playing time is on the rise, while Jerron McMillian's is declining. Could the Packers pair Banjo with a healthy Morgan Burnett?

Chris Banjo’s playing time is on the rise, while Jerron McMillian’s is declining. Could the Packers pair Banjo with a healthy Morgan Burnett?

Following the Packers’ week two win over Washington, defensive coordinator Dom Capers hinted at a bigger role for undrafted rookie Chris Banjo.

“You could see more and more of Chris Banjo,” Capers said, per Ty Dunne. “I thought he did well. He had one missed tackle one of those long runs, but other than that, I thought he did a nice job. He’s been a physical guy for us there through the preseason.”

And see more and more of Banjo, we did. Banjo was on the field for 54 of 56 snaps last week against the Bengals–more than M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, according to Pro Football Focus.

Banjo’s snap count could very well go down once starter Morgan Burnett returns to the lineup. But from a physical standpoint, pairing Banjo with Burnett may give the Packers their most talented duo on the back end.

If the Packers could pull the best attributes from Jennings and McMillian, they’d have a top-notch player alongside Burnett. But Jennings (6-0 187) is limited as a run defender, and McMillian struggles in coverage.

Banjo, despite only playing 87 snaps on the season, may be the most complete player of the trio.

Jennings is coming off one of his best games as a professional at Cincinnati. He ranks 25th among 8o safeties who have played at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps, per PFF. McMillian had an impressive pass deflection against the Bengals, but his playing time has decreased dramatically since week one.

McMillian played all 81 snaps in the season opener at San Francisco but was on the field for just 14 plays two weeks later at Cincinnati.

After quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews, Burnett may be the Packers’ toughest player to replace. Burnett isn’t Nick Collins at this point of his career, but there’s a sizable talent gap at safety behind Burnett.

If the trend continues, McMillian could be demoted to Banjo’s role to start the season, which was primarily on special teams. Jennings, barring injury, will continue to see the field in some capacity, while Banjo’s role when Burnett returns remains up in the air.

19

August

Revisiting My 10 Top Training Camp Topics for the Packers

Eddie Lacy may not get the first carry of the season, but he's the "starter" in my eyes.

Eddie Lacy may not get the first carry of the season, but he’s the “starter” in my eyes.

About three weeks into camp and halfway through the NFL preseason, many of the Packers’ key question marks are starting to take shape.

Some of such unknowns have since seen new faces (Vince Young) enter the conversation, while other questions (Jermichael Finley) are still completely up in the air.

Prior to training camp, we put ten Packers training-camp topics under the microscope for further review. Now two games into the preseason, it’s time to revisit some of these questions and predictions.

1. Who will be the Packers’ opening-day starter at running back?

Answer: Eddie Lacy, and I feel the same. Kinda.

The Packers clearly didn’t want to (literally) hand the job to a rookie running back without some competition; the team routinely gave veterans Alex Green and James Starks run with the No. 1 offense early in the offseason.

But after the “fat” Eddie Lacy thing blew over, the rookie quickly separated himself from the pack at the position. Coach McCarthy has been effusive in his praise of DuJuan Harris, who returned to practice this week, but if “Fat” is healthy, he’s going to get at least a share of the workload.

Fat was exceptional in his preseason debut against the St. Louis Rams, racking up 51 total yards on nine touches. He broke tackle after tackle, picked up the blitz and caught the ball out of the backfield. It was certainly an impressive showing for the rookie.

But if Harris and Lacy are both available on opening day, I really think both players will get a share of the load. Harris played well against the 49ers in the playoffs, but the Packers abandoned the running game in the second half.

So, in this case, the “starter” label may be a bit subjective. It could be a “starter and closer” or “thunder and lightning”-kinda situation.

2. How many defensive linemen will the Packers keep?

Answer: Six. Now, I think they’ll keep seven, including Mike Neal.

I was cautiously optimistic and mildly skeptical about the Neal-at-outside linebacker thing, but it looks like it’s working so far. Injured second-year defensive end Jerel Worthy told me and Cheesehead TV’s Zach Kruse to “look out” for Neal in his new role, and halfway through the preseason, he certainly looks like one of the team’s best pass rushers.

16

August

Checking Up on the Packers’ Third-Year Players

Packers RB Alex Green could have the most to lose among third-year players.

Packers RB Alex Green could have the most to lose among third-year players.

At a time where rookies are looking to make an impression, sophomores are trying to make that jump, and veterans are honing their skills, it’s easy to overlook the third-year players. These guys are knee-deep into that transition between being a “young guy” and being a “veteran.” And for many of them, it’s this transition that will make or break their careers. When a football player goes looking to sign his second contract after three or four years, he’s going to know exactly what he’s worth – both to his own team and other teams.

The third-year players for the Green Bay Packers are an interesting group, to say the least. After winning the Super Bowl in 2010, the Packers picked at the 32nd spot in the 2011 NFL Draft. It’s a double-edged sword, because it represents a great achievement, but also provides a great challenge on draft day.

General Manager Ted Thompson ended up taking ten players that day, and four of them are no longer on the roster: G Caleb Schlauderaff (Round 6, No. 179), LB D.J. Smith (Round 6, No. 186), LB Ricky Elmore (Round 6, No. 197), and their final pick DE Lawrence Guy (Round 7, No. 233). Schlauderaff was traded to the New York Jets at the beginning of the regular season, Elmore was a disappointment who left with the cuts, Guy spent a year on injured reserve before being signed from the practice squad by the Indianapolis Colts, and D.J. Smith was a semi-surprising cut by the Packers last April.

The remaining six picks and two undrafted rookie free agents have made it this far, so let’s take a quick look at where they might be headed:

T Derek Sherrod (Round 1, No. 32)

  • Fate hasn’t been kind to Sherrod. No matter what people gleaned about his abilities from his short time in training and practices, there’s no avoiding the fact that his injury killed the value of Thompson’s first round pick. Sherrod’s been off the field since December 2011, and there’s no telling when he’ll get back on, not to mention how he will perform if he does. The Packers will be as patient as possible, but the outlook just isn’t promising.

WR Randall Cobb (Round 2, No. 64)