For the past few seasons, the Green Bay Packers have been trying to rectify a lack of talent at two positions on defense: cornerback and inside linebacker.
Through four games in 2017, it appears that the team has found their solution to each of those positions via a glut of talent at a third spot: safety.
Four years ago, the defense was still trying to recover from the career-ending neck injury suffered by superstar free safety Nick Collins. M.D. Jennings was a liability, leading to the drafting of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Clinton-Dix and Burnett have become one of the best safety combinations in the entire league. But Ted Thompson has been a combination of lucky and smart in that he’s continued to stockpile talent at the position despite having two excellent starters who never leave the field.
He’s been lucky in that two undrafted free agents, Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans, have developed into starting caliber players. Brice is an explosive hitter at strong safety, and Evans has the range and discipline to cover as a free safety.
But despite having four quality players at the position, Thompson was smart this offseason to spend a precious second round pick on an athletically gifted strong safety in Josh Jones.
At the time, it was a puzzle to see how Jones could get on the field. Here’s what I wrote in June:
"If (Jones is) to play linebacker, then, that would mean removing Brice from the field and moving Burnett back to safety. If he’s to play safety, that would mean keeping Burnett at linebacker and still replacing Brice."
It was easy to see that Jones and Burnett would be used at inside linebacker to increase the defense’s speed in pass coverage. That much has played out, with Jones excelling in extensive inside linebacker snaps in the past two weeks.
What wasn’t easy to see, though, was that Morgan Burnett would become the Packers’ best option as a nickel corner.
Though the Packers drafted Kevin King and signed Davon House this offseason, they let Micah Hyde sign with the Buffalo Bills. That meant that they were counting on Damarious Randall, and short of him, Quinten Rollins, to bounce back from sophomore slumps and “star” at the nickel position.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.
But the play of Burnett, Jones, and Evans has allowed the defense to still take a step forward so far this season.
While Jones received considerable and deserved praise for his breakout performance against the Bengals, Burnett had an equally impressive game. He played extensively as the nickel corner, and Evans also shone as the starting free safety.
This meant that the secondary was able to hold up despite missing both Brice and House.
So, shockingly enough, the Packers have found roles on defense for each of their five safeties.
Clinton-Dix is the prototypical free safety. Jones is a coverage linebacker. Brice and Evans are available to man the back-end when Burnett plays elsewhere. And perhaps most importantly, Burnett can cover for deficiencies and injuries at corner by playing nickel when needed.
But the beauty of the five safeties is that Burnett is able to help out wherever he’s needed, which might increasingly be nickel corner as the season wears on, because of the talented options behind him.
It’s not a traditional way of building a defense. And it’s not even the defense that Ted Thompson tried to build. He certainly envisioned Randall and Rollins as defensive stalwarts rather than Evans and Brice.
But thanks to these five safeties, the Packers’ defense has found the answers to many of their issues so far.