Morgan Burnett. Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports photograph

2014 Packers: Breaking Down the Safeties

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In this series we take a close look at the Packers 90-man roster on the verge of training camp and discuss each player’s chances of making the final 53.

It may be an understatement to say the Green Bay Packers safeties were disappointing in 2013.

Last year, Green Bay ranked 24th in pass defense, giving up 247 yards per game through the air. A major step back from 2012, when they ranked 11th in the NFL and only surrendered 211 passing yards per game.

The main culprit for this digression?

The safety position.

In 2013, the Packers safeties were responsible for 13 passing touchdowns, 862 passing yards, and 31 missed tackles. Even worse, the group allowed an abysmal 73 pass completion percentage and failed to force a single turnover the entire season.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end Tyler Eifert (80) catches a pass against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. USA Today Sports

It’s no surprise the Packers have made some major changes at the position since the 2013 season ended.

After Green Bay cut Jerron McMillan midseason, they let last year’s starting free safety, M.D. Jennings, walk in free agency. They drafted perhaps the top safety coming out of college in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round and are experimenting with Micah Hyde at the position.

The Packers are trying to make changes and avoid a repeat of 2013.

They need more impact plays from their safeties for their defense to take the next step in 2014, and despite the new acquisitions, they need Burnett to raise his level of play and be the reliable starter they envisioned when they drafted him in the second round back in 2010.

 

SAFETIES (7)

Safe: Morgan Burnett, 6-1, 209; Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, 6-1, 208; Micah Hyde, 6-0, 197

One of the most anticipated position battles on the Packers roster going into training camp is between Hyde and rookie first-round pick Clinton-Dix for the starting free safety position.

Green Bay Packers cornerback Micah Hyde (33). Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

During OTAs, Hyde was paired with Burnett to hold down the backend on the Packers first team defense. Hyde flashed plenty of ability last year as the team’s top defensive rookie, so a shift to safety makes sense for him.

Primarily working out of the slot, Hyde proved to be one of the most reliable tacklers in the Packers secondary last year, recording 55 stops and only three missed tackles.

Hyde was also effective as a blitzer and showed plenty of range in coverage, recording four pass deflections and allowing only one touchdown reception in 52 pass attempts.

Hyde has good size and plenty of natural ability as a defensive back. It’s no surprise Coach McCarthy wants to try Hyde at safety in his second year.

However, Hyde did not record a single interception last year and dropped what would have been a game-winning pick against San Francisco in the playoffs when he let a poor Kaepernick throw slip through his fingers.

If the Packers are looking for more turnovers from the safety position are they sure Hyde can be their guy?

The Packers are excited about Hyde’s potential on defense, and it still has yet to be seen whether they will use him exclusively at safety or corner or decide to move him around as a hybrid between the two.

Whether Hyde starts or not, he will still be valuable in Capers’ system this year, but his ability as a full-time starter may all depend on the progress their rookie first-round pick makes.

Green Bay Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix practices

Clinton-Dix comes to Green Bay with a lot on his shoulders already. Fans expect the former Alabama defensive back to turn around the woes at the Packers safety position and become a true playmaker in the secondary.

I’m not sure Clinton-Dix will be the “lights out” player many expect, but in the very least, he’s a savvy, reliable defensive back with some range in coverage.

In his last two years with the Crimson Tide, he recorded seven interceptions and eight pass breakups. He has decent closing speed (4.58) and reacts quickly to the ball.

He isn’t afraid to lay a hit in the open field and plays tough against the run. He wasn’t always the best tackler at Alabama and sometimes got sloppy with his technique, but as a free safety, his ability against the run is more than adequate.

Clinton-Dix’s game complements Burnett’s well. If the rookie out of Alabama works out well in the Packers defense, then it may really open things up for Burnett to play the type of game that best suits him.

Burnett isn’t a great center fielder, like Clinton-Dix or what Nick Collins was before him.

Burnnett plays best up in the box, using his size and strength against the run. In 2013, he finished second on the team in tackles with 96. Impressive considering he missed the first four games of the season because of injury.

Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson (39) is tackled by Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42). Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson (39) is tackled by Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42). Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

However, for the Packers safeties to really be who they are they need Burnett to step up and play better than he did last year.

After receiving a generous contract extension last offseason, Burnett had a very disappointing year in 2013. According to Pro Football Focus, he finished as the 63rd ranked safety last year, only a few spots better than his counterpart, M.D. Jennings, who graded out 70th.

Burnett failed to record a single impact play–Zero interceptions. Zero sacks. Zero forced fumbles. That’s not what you expect from a guy who is getting paid to be the future at the position.

Burnnett also missed 11 tackles and gave up four receiving touchdowns. Quarterbacks throwing into his coverage averaged a 135.8 passer rating and a 71.2 completion percentage.

Regardless who starts beside him, Burnett has to be better in 2014. He has to get back to his 2012 form, where he was reliable in coverage and made plays on the field.

The Packers need more from him. No more excuses this year. He’ll have a more than competent running mate in Hyde or Clinton-Dix.

Burnett has to perform for the Packers secondary to be stout this season.

 

On the Fence: Sean Richardson, 6-2, 216; Chris Banjo, 5-10, 207

Green Bay Packers safety Sean Richardson (28). Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Both Richardson and Banjo saw limited playing time last year and will be competing with each other for the last roster spot at safety.

Richardson spent the first eleven weeks of the season on the Packers’ PUP list and saw his first action against Minnesota in Week 12.

According to Pro Football Focus, Richardson finished the season with a positive grade (+0.2). In 156 snaps, he recorded 13 tackles and allowed only one reception, which was a costly eleven-yard touchdown against Pittsburgh in Week 16.

Richardson brings size and a physical playing style to the safety position. He plays well against the run and his size enables him to hold his own up in the box. However, he still has some strides to make in coverage before he’ll see significant playing time in Capers’ system.

The young safety out of Vanderbilt will need to prove he can put it all together in camp this year. He has the potential of being a solid option at strong safety behind Burnett. Until then, Richardson will need to make his mark on special teams.

Last year, Banjo saw more snaps than Richardson, logging 192 plays from scrimmage and one start in Week 3 against Cincinnati.

Green Bay Packers defensive back Chris Banjo (32). Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Green Bay Packers defensive back Chris Banjo (32). Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The former Southern Methodist defensive back made a big impression in camp last year, earning a final roster spot after entering camp as a longshot for the Packers’ 53.

After a strong preseason performance, where he recorded a dozen tackles and a sack, Banjo struggled to make an impact during the regular season. Even though he became a key special teams contributor, Banjo struggled against the run, missing five tackles and taking several bad angles to the ball carrier. Despite his best effort, Banjo is still an undersized safety that will struggle to take down bigger, powerful backs, like Adrian Peterson.

Banjo did hold up well in coverage last year, only allowing one receptions for 11 yards and recording two pass deflections. However, Banjo’s size may hinder him when defending the tall tight ends commonly seen around the league.

Banjo needs a strong camp to beat out Richardson and hold off two rookie free agents for a roster spot.

 

Long Shots: Tanner Miller, 6-1, 211; Charles Clay, 5-10, 204

Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Jeremy Jackson (17) is tackled after the catch by Iowa Hawkeyes safety Tanner Miller (5). Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Miller is a former teammate of Hyde and was a stud in Iowa’s defense. As a three-year starter, he recorded seven interceptions, 9 pass breakups, and averaged 72 tackles per season.

Miller was a leader on a good Hawkeyes defense and brings a lot of natural ability to the Packers safety group as an undrafted free agent.

Clay started 13 games for Hawaii in 2013 and is another undrafted free agent that could offer depth at safety. Clay plays better up near the line of scrimmage, recording 69 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss as a senior.

Both Clay and Miller have a chance to beat out Richardson or Banjo for a roster spot in camp.

Projection

Hyde’s versatility allows the Packers to go thin at the position and only keep three true safeties on their final roster: Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Micah Hyde, and Sean Richardson. Banjo and Miller will be eligible for the practice squad.

Previous Position Breakdowns:

OFFENSE –  Quarterback, Running BackWide ReceiverTight EndOffensive Line 

DEFENSE – Defensive Line, Outside Linebacker, Inside Linebacker, Cornerback

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Tags: Green Bay Packers Ha Ha Clinton-Dix Micah Hyde Morgan Burnett Training Camp

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