If I’ve heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times. Year after year, the Green Bay Packers neglected opportunities to enhance their wide receiver group with top talent to maximize the Super Bowl window with Aaron Rodgers.
Now going into year one with Jordan Love under center, the front office could have swiped any of the four wide receivers drafted in the first round of the 2023 draft. Instead, their head was turned by a Herculean pass rusher out of Iowa named Lukas Van Ness.
While Green Bay consistently had a Pro Bowl or All-Pro wide receiver for Aaron Rodgers to throw to, they’ve generally come up short of sustaining a high-caliber running mate at receiver.
However, amongst the media madness and fan outrage for not acquiring a first-round or splash free-agent receiver, therein lies a similarly harrowing story at another position.
I know, I know. But yes, safety.
Lest we forget that besides fans and media clamoring for Green Bay to get Rodgers better pass catchers, the other frequently spewed quote across the airwaves was “Get Aaron Rodgers a defense!”
Examining similarities between the most dominant top-ranked defenses since 2000, they’ve all shared at least one commonality: A great safety or elite safety play.
1. 2000 Ravens
Rod Woodson (NFL Hall of Fame)
2. 2002 Buccaneers
John Lynch (NFL Hall of Fame)
3. 2003, 2004, and 2006 Patriots
Rodney Harrison (three-time All-Pro, NFL Hall of Fame semifinalist)
4. 2006 and 2008 Ravens
Ed Reed (NFL Hall of Fame)
5. 2008 Bears
Mike Brown (two-time All-Pro)
6. 2008 and 2010 Steelers
Troy Polamalu (NFL Hall of Fame)
7. 2013 Seahawks (Legion of Boom)
Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas (seven combined All-Pros with Seahawks)
8. 2015 Broncos
TJ Ward (one-time All-Pro, two Pro Bowls)
9. 2016 and 2019 Patriots
Devin McCourty (three-time All Pro, four Pro Bowls)
10. Just for fun - 1985 Bears ("the greatest defense of all-time")
Dave Duerson (two-time All-Pro, four Pro Bowls)
Over the past decade, the safety position has evolved to become one of the most critical on defense, requiring a premier all-around talent. Safeties must possess the skills of a cornerback in coverage while also being tasked with playing up in the box with the physicality of a linebacker against the run.
“You look at Kansas City and what they do, look at Philadelphia with Jalen Hurts, look at all these offenses that use [run-pass options] and spread the field out on you,” said ESPN's Matt Bowen, according to The Washington Post. “You need players that can match that stuff. That’s why the position is becoming much more valuable.”
To exemplify star safety play in today's NFL, we look to Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both have regularly posted top grades at the position in run defense and coverage, playing successfully at multiple spots on defense.
For the Packers, it's an unfortunately long trip down memory lane to find the last time they had a premier safety like James or Fitzpatrick.
The year is 2011. The player is Nick Collins.
Coming off a 31-25 Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers the season before, the Packers were heavy favorites to return to the Super Bowl.
Green Bay had the top quarterback, a star safety, elite defense, and premier receiver talent; the recipe to success, things were looking great!
Led by the eventual 2011 Associated Press MVP Aaron Rodgers, the offense displayed dominance and carried the team to a 15-1 record.
Of course, there’s a caveat. The team would lose All-Pro safety Collins in week two against the Carolina Panthers to a herniated disk in his neck, marking the last time he’d suit up in the NFL.
Collins, to this point in his career, had secured three second-team All-Pro honors (2008–2010), three Pro Bowl nods, landed on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team and came away with a pivotal first-quarter interception in Super Bowl XLV that he returned for a touchdown.
When Collins was drafted in 2005, I vividly recall looking across the room at my dad, his face riddled with as much pure shock and disappointment as mine, saying (loudly), “Nick Collins? Who? From where? Nick Collins, are you kidding me?”
The dumbfounded disbelief in the room was unparalleled and would have been hard for Hollywood’s finest to replicate. But we couldn’t have been proven more wrong by the now Packers’ Hall of Famer.
Following Collins' injury and a Divisional Round loss to the Giants in the playoffs, little did anyone realize the whirlwind to ensue as the Packers aimed to solve for losing an elite player at a position growing in importance.
NFL Week 3, 2011 - 2017
In Collins’ absence, Charlie Peprah stepped in next to second-year safety out of Georgia Tech, Morgan Burnett, to man the secondary.
Peprah, a fifth-round selection by the New York Giants in 2006, was waived by numerous teams before landing with the Packers in 2010. That year, he stepped up admirably across 12 starts due to injuries but moved on from soon after.
Per Pro Football Reference, without Collins the defense ranked dead last in football, dropping 30 spots from the previous season. Despite having recently anointed Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson roaming around the defense, this unit allowed the most passing yards per game in the NFL (229.8).
For the next six seasons, Burnett would lead defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ defense in the Packers' secondary. A third-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Burnett was known to stick his nose in and deliver hard hits.
In his Packers career, Burnett registered 721 tackles (556 solos), nine interceptions, 7.5 sacks, 69 passes defended, eight forced fumbles, and nine fumble recoveries. Burnett eventually battled injuries and ultimately never registered a Pro Bowl or All-Pro appearance for Green Bay.
In Burnett’s first four seasons as a starter, he only missed four games. The next three seasons saw him miss ten games. His career peaked quickly and injury prevented it from sustaining, ultimately departing to sign with Pittsburgh in 2018.
He retired as a member of the Packers in 2022 after officially retiring in 2021.
In his last season with Green Bay, Charles Woodson started seven games at safety in 2012, and undrafted free agent M.D. Jennings otherwise served as the primary starter next to Burnett.
Jennings is notorious among Packers' fans for "The Fail Mary" in the 2012 week three tilt at Seattle. Despite further review favoring Jennings' case, the refs instead called Russell Wilson's pass a game-winning 24-yard touchdown reception by Golden Tate. The play remains one of the most controversial calls in recent history.
After moving on from Jennings, now All-Pro safety for the Buffalo Bills Micah Hyde and Green Bay’s 2014 first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix rounded out the starting safeties to close out the Capers era in Green Bay.
The Packers were so close.
Hyde started at safety and played well for the first six games of 2014 but the team decided to hand over the reins to Clinton-Dix. Hyde bumped to slot corner and rotational safety duties.
Clinton-Dix maxed out in 2016, making the first and still only Pro Bowl from a Packers safety since Collins did in 2010. Unfortunately, in 2017, Clinton-Dix’s effort became sporadic, he missed too many tackles and lacked any tape making the “big play.”
He was traded to Washington during the 2018 season.
With Clinton-Dix out, enter 2017 second-round pick Josh Jones, a safety out of North Carolina State. He was drafted to be the hybrid safety taking over the league by now and started seven games as a rookie.
Unfortunately, his play rarely met NFL standards throughout his 12 starts in two seasons. He was waived after vocalizing his displeasure with playtime and holding out of the 2019 training camp.
Per Football Outsiders, in the final two seasons under Dom Capers (2016-2017), the Packers’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) against the pass ranked 22nd and 27th, respectively. In 2017 they surrendered a 67.8 completion % (30th) and a 102 quarterback rating (31st).
2018 - 2022
For the next three seasons, Mike Pettine took over as defensive coordinator. His ninth-rated pass DVOA in 2019 would be the best in his three-year tenure in Green Bay.
However, the Packers' safety unit in 2018 graded out as one of the worst in coverage since 2013. Consisting of Tramon Williams, Kentrell Brice, and Josh Jones, the group ranked 28th in pass DVOA.
Despite being a great cornerback for the Packers throughout his first eight seasons, Williams had never started a full season at safety in his 11-year career. Brice was a first-time starter, and Jones continued to underperform.
Per Mike Renner of PFF, no safety would post a PFF coverage grade over 65 that year.
Before the 2019 season, the team added a rising star safety, Adrian Amos, on a four-year, $36 million contract. Per PFF, in his first season with the Packers, he allowed the sixth-fewest receptions (35) and posted the 15th-highest grade at the position (75.7).
They also drafted Darnell Savage with the 21st pick in 2019, a safety known for his play-making ability, elite play speed, and flashing excellent coverage skills at Maryland.
Queue the aforementioned holdout by Jones.
Savage allowed a 56.7 completion percentage in 2019, only allowing 188 yards in coverage.
Things were looking up with the new tandem.
But the curious case of Amos and Savage’s downfalls is that both players regressed tremendously when Joe Barry took over as defensive coordinator before the 2021 season.
In 2020, Amos produced his strongest graded season in Green Bay. He posted an 89.4 PFF grade due to his sure tackling abilities and posting the highest PFF coverage grade of all safeties (91.5).
He allowed a 101.4 passer rating in 2021 and a 107.7 rating in 2022 under Barry. He’d go from being one of the strongest players on Green Bay’s defense to one of its underlying concerns.
This offseason, Amos departed Green Bay to join Aaron Rodgers with the New York Jets on a one-year deal. He exits as a tale of two stories and you can’t help but wonder if he was a product of a failed system fit that derailed his career after two of his most impactful seasons as a pro.
With Savage, so far in two years with Barry the lowest completion percentage he’s allowed is 64.9%, a significant downgrade. His 71.1 passer rating allowed under Pettine was his worst, but that rating shot up to 117.2 (2021) and 114.2 (2022) under Barry.
Savage has potential to be tremendous if his position in Barry’s defense finds any consistency. He currently ranks eighth in passes defended among all safeties in the past four seasons (31), 11 more than the next closest safety from his 2019 draft class. This despite having eight dropped interceptions.
Savage could be looking for a new home in 2024 if his play doesn’t get back on track this upcoming season. If that's the case, watch for Green Bay to use one of its two 2024 first-round picks on a safety. Again.
While Green Bay fetched two strong seasons out of Amos and Savage, like Burnett and Clinton-Dix, their strongest years were realized right away but quickly faded.
Unfortunately for the Packers, the continued inconsistency at safety eroded the potential for a stronger defense as Rodgers aged, All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams departed, and the offense introduced young talent.
Now with the 2023 season on the horizon, the concerns at safety remain. Savage will likely reclaim free safety responsibilities and the occasional snaps at slot corner.
Out of 11 positional groups on the team, the current Packers safety group is arguably the worst. Only one safety in the building has played next to Savage (Rudy Ford), so there’s opportunity for someone to step up as top dog.
“I like where our safety room is in terms of the competition right now,” Packers safeties coach Ryan Downard said, via Ryan Wood of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “There’s an opening there, and there’s only one guy in the room who’s played a ton of snaps for us… So it’s full competition when we go on the practice field.”
Ford posted three interceptions (two against the Cowboys) but allowed a 106.7 passer rating on 20 targets.
Jonathan Owens, Tarvarius Moore, Dallin Leavitt, and Anthony Johnson Jr. will round out the group. The most promising veteran of them is Owens.
Johnson Jr. is an intriguing rookie who flashed all the hybrid traits of a modern NFL safety in college at Iowa State. He could easily claim snaps as the season progresses, should struggles mount.
The 2023 Packers' defense will be heavily relied upon to keep them in games, especially in the first half of the season. The offense is loaded with young, developing talent and Jordan Love enters his first year as a starter; there are bound to be hiccups and growing pains.
The safety position needs to find consistency for longer than two-year stretches if the Packers desire a return to the Super Bowl post-Aaron Rodgers.
With offenses prioritizing numerous high-caliber receivers and more quarterbacks being dangerous runners, safeties are being asked to do more than ever.
Despite valiant efforts, the shortcomings at the position have haunted Green Bay since 2011. Finding someone who will have a Nick Collins type of impact won’t be easy but will be critical for this team to remain competitive against evolving NFL offenses.