Can the Green Bay Packers afford to draft a safety?

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 02: Derwin James
ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 02: Derwin James /

As the 2018 NFL Draft approaches, the Green Bay Packers desperately need defensive backs. But can they afford to use their top pick on a safety, rather than on a cornerback?

The cornerback position starts three players at a time and currently has 35-year-old Tramon Williams, second-year pro Kevin King, and a host of unproven players. Safety, meanwhile, boasts 2017 Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, second-year pro Josh Jones, and some high-quality depth in Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans.

Cornerback is clearly the more pressing need. But two of the top two defensive backs in the draft are primarily viewed as safeties. That will lead to an interesting discussion in the Packers’ war room if the team has the good fortune of Minkah Fitzpatrick and/or Derwin James being available at #14.

Fitzpatrick stands 6-foot-1, 201 pounds, and has excellent athleticism. He played extensively at the “star” position at Alabama (similar to Damarious Randall’s role in the slot last year), as well as at safety.

He’s exceptionally well-rounded, with excellent ball skills, coverage ability, and tackling. He’s primarily being projected as a free safety in the NFL with the ability to play nickel corner. Not many scouts see him as an outside corner.

Derwin James from Florida State, meanwhile, has similarly outstanding measurables to Josh Jones. While Jones’ rawness saw him slip to the bottom of the second round, though, James’ polish could see him selected in the top 10.

James is bigger than Fitzpatrick at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. He’s tremendous as a rover near the line of scrimmage, whether that’s defending against the run or rushing the passer off the edge. He’s far more polished than Jones in coverage, though he still has room to grow there.

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Both of these players are projected to be picked before the Packers come on the clock at 14th overall. But with the mayhem that inevitably occurs on draft night, Brian Gutekunst needs to be ready to strike if either or both players slide.

On’s Mock Draft Central page, two of four experts have Fitzpatrick lasting until 14. The other two have James lasting until 14.

So should the Packers draft James or Fitzpatrick, should they be available? And which of the two should they be hoping slips down to them?

To a certain extent, the question depends on how Mike Pettine and Gutekunst view Josh Jones. If they believe him to be Morgan Burnett’s successor and the strong safety of the future, then James becomes a somewhat repetitive pick.

It’s possible, though, that Pettine sees Jones as a more of a coverage linebacker, able to be physical in the run game while still covering tight ends and running backs. That’s an increasingly valuable position, and Jones excelled there far more than he did at safety in his rookie season.

GREEN BAY, WI – SEPTEMBER 24: Josh Jones /

In this case, selecting James could fill two needs on the defense—the newly created hole at strong safety, and the longstanding absence of a speedy playmaker at inside linebacker.

If the Packers were to take Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, it would be safe to assume that they’d begin him as a corner, most likely in the slot. That is a tremendously important position where the Packers are essentially barren following the trade of Randall. Fitzpatrick also has the size, speed, and ability to warrant a shot at outside corner.

At safety, though, he might be repetitive with fellow Crimson Tide free safety Clinton-Dix.

The Packers in recent years have not hesitated to play natural safeties at cornerback. Randall and Micah Hyde each manned the slot with varying effectiveness over the last few years. But it’s possible that forcing these players into the cornerback role was a misuse of their talents.

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Despite that, my preference would still be Fitzpatrick. He would immediately become a starter at the all-important nickel position, and his positional fit could evolve from there.

Ultimately, the Packers can’t go wrong with either player. Both would inject much-needed athleticism, playmaking, and toughness to a currently dismal Packers’ secondary. Gutekunst should count himself lucky if either one is on the board next Thursday night.