We will wrap up the Green Bay Packers defense by taking a close look at the safety position. A lot of eyes will be on the competition at safety this offseason. The Packers released Woodson after the experiment at safety last year didn’t quite pan out. Now the position is filled with youth and hungry players looking for the opportunity to prove themselves.
On paper, the Green Bay safety group may not look impressive to others around the league. There aren’t a lot of familiar names that really jump out at you. However, the Packers like the potential of the young players at the position, and there is no clearer indicator of this than the fact they passed on safety in the draft. A draft that many believed was rich with safety talent. Even though this came as a shock to most, myself included, it just reiterates that Packers believe the solution to the safety position is currently on the roster.
They already have a solid starter in Morgan Burnett, so who else will emerge this season? Who will help take the Green Bay secondary to the next level?
With very few personnel changes at the position, let’s take a close look and see how this position could pan out this season.
There are a lot of things to like about young safety Morgan Burnett. He led the team in tackles with 123, and also tallied 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles. Burnett showed his versatility last year as an NFL safety.
Playing up at the line in run support, blitzing the quarterback, matching man-on-man against bigger tight ends, and dropping back into deep coverage. Perhaps more impressively, Burnett was only one of two defensive players in the entire league to play every defensive snap for his team last year. That means he played all 1,088 defensive snaps, including the playoffs, in 2012. That is durability that is rare to find in today’s league, especially for a defensive back.
Burnett is still young, at only 24, and still has a lot of room to grow. If the Packers find a reliable counterpart at the other safety position, Burnett could be freed up more in the defensive backfield and put himself in position to make big plays as he roams the field. Hopefully, the Packers will find that other safety to pair with Burnett in the defensive backfield, and this consistency will allow Burnett to have a breakout year.
With the release of Charles Woodson this offseason, the other starting safety position is up for grabs. At this point, it’s a two-horse race between Jennings and McMillian.
Jennings and McMillian split time at safety last year in Woodson’s absence, and had other playing opportunities in nickel and dime sub-packages throughout the season. Despite their youth, Jennings and McMillian bring a considerable amount of playing experience to the safety position. They each played nearly 600 snaps for the defense last year, with Jennings slightly edging out McMillian on playing time at safety by approximately 20 snaps. Position coach Darren Perry said both young players had their moments last season, but neither one of them did enough to secure the starting position opposite Burnett.
Both Jennings and McMillian bring a unique skill set to the safety position. Jennings plays with good speed and is reliable in coverage. He did admirably last year in securing the middle of the field and preventing opposing offenses from getting big plays over the top of the defense. Passing plays more than 20 yards allowed by the Green Bay defense dropped from 71 in 2011 to 50 in 2012. It was evident last season that Jennings was already an improvement over Charlie Peprah in coverage, but Jennings still had his share of struggles.
Jennings played undersized, weighing in just shy of 190 pounds. He got his nose in on a lot of tackles (52), but lacked the size and strength to pack a punch when he hit and bring ball carriers down to the ground. This won’t strike any fear into any receivers coming over the middle of the field.
However, Jennings has made it a point this offseason to add weight and strength, so he can play more physically this season. A recent report by Tyler Dunne has Jennings now at 200 pounds, which is a more ideal weight for playing safety in the league. Jennings also said the added weight will help him bring down ball carriers and deliver the big hits you expect from the position.
Jennings is an intelligent player with a good understanding of the defense. With the added weight and another year of experience, Jennings has a good chance at winning the starting safety spot this offseason, but his efforts won’t go unmatched.
Last year, the Packers drafted McMillian in the fourth round replace Nick Collins, who was forced to retire early in 2012 due to a severe neck injury. From the beginning, McMillian seemed poised to be the Packers next big hitting safety, but McMillian’s rookie season was disappointing. He struggled to grasp the playbook, and was out of place in coverage on more than one occasion. He allowed 4-½ passing plays of 20 yards or more. Blown coverage and missed assignments were difficult for Green Bay coaches to stomach, as they went with the more reliable Jennings as the year progressed.
Still, McMillian brings a lot of raw ability to the safety position. He is the most athletic safety on the Packers roster. He has the size, strength, and speed to deliver big hits and make plays on the field. He showed his versatility last year by playing corner at times in dime packages, and proved to be a proficient tackler in run support. Despite his early struggles, the Packers still really like McMillian’s potential. He just needs to be more consistent and prove to his coaches that he can be reliable in coverage.
McMillian will do everything in his power to challenge Jennings for the starting safety spot, and with the two young players giving it their best, the safety competition could turn out to be the most exciting position battle to watch in training camp this year.
On the Fence – Sean Richardson, 6-2, 216 pounds
Honestly, I don’t know if Richardson has a better chance at making the final roster than the other young safeties at the position, but I’m giving the Richardson the inside track on Powell and Fulton because he’s already spent a year on the Packers’ roster and should have a better grasp of the system at this point.
Richardson brings size and speed to the position. His 4.43 40 time is by far the fastest out of any Green Bay safety, and this top end speed makes him even more intriguing as a player when you consider he his also the largest player at the position.
Richardson is only 15 pounds shy of being a linebacker, so I can understand why the Packers signed this interesting prospect out of Vanderbilt last offseason. However, Richardson did go undrafted last year and still appears to be very raw as an NFL safety. Some scouts believed he would struggle grasping complex NFL schemes and prove to be a liability in coverage. Richardson is definitely a project, to say the least, but it is rare to find such speed and size together in the same player at the safety position. He may just be a project that pans out down the road.
Richardson was only active for three games last season before injuring his neck in late November, causing him to miss the rest of the season and have surgery. It’s highly unlikely Richardson will challenge Jennings or McMillian for the starting spot, but Richardson is a strong candidate for a top reserve spot at safety. He’ll have to compete with Powell and Fulton and prove to his coaches that he is fully recovered from his injury.
Powell and Fulton are new additions to the roster, but because the safety position is thin heading into the 2013 season, they will have a fair chance to earn a job on the team.
After Richardson’s injury last season, the Packers signed Powell to the practice squad in early December, so he has a little experience in the Packers system. Powell is a converted college cornerback/wide receiver who also returned kicks at Penn State. Powell’s returning experience could factor in him winning a final roster spot. If he could prove to be a dual threat at both safety and on special teams then he could unseat Richardson for one of the reserve safety positions.
Fulton is an undrafted rookie out of Chowan University. The small school prospect recorded four interceptions as a senior, and scouts say his skills are more suited for the free safety position. Fulton is a bit of an unknown, but the Packers tend to like the small school safety prospects (Collins, McMillian). Fulton’s best chances for making the final roster are on special teams or the practice squad.
Last year the Packers began the season with five safeties on their final roster (Burnett, Woodson, Jennings, McMillian, Richardson). With a similar group returning this year, I expect the Packers to keep a similar number.
Burnett, Jennings, and McMillian are locks for the final roster at this point, and depending on whether or not Green Bay brings in any veteran safeties from free agency, I expect them to keep Richardson for another year and give Powell or Fulton a chance to make the final cut.
By not drafting a safety in this year’s draft, the Packers are trusting that either Jennings or McMillian will take their game to the next level and emerge as the clear starter opposite Burnett this offseason.
We’ll see how this plays out in training camp.