2014 Packers draft preview: Safeties

Former Louisville safety Calvin Pryor is a big-hitting intimidator with good size and run-stopping ability.

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FOX Sports Wisconsin’s Paul Imig provides complete coverage of the Packers and the 2014 NFL Draft in his 14-part preview. You can find the entire series here.

TODAY’S POSITION: Safeties

Importance (1-to-10 scale): 10

On the roster

Last year, FOXSportsWisconsin.com rated the importance of the Packers drafting a safety at 10. Well, Green Bay didn’t draft a safety at all, and, surprise, surprise, that position group had a dreadful season. Not only did the Packers safeties fail to record a single interception, but also there were missed plays everywhere on the field throughout the year.

Before last season, Morgan Burnett looked like he was on the verge of becoming one of the NFL’s most dependable safeties. Green Bay’s front office sure thought so, giving Burnett a four-year contract extension for $24.75 million last offseason. One year later, that looks like a bad move by the Packers after Burnett struggled in ways that he rarely had in previous seasons. However, it’s very possible that 2013 was just a bad season for Burnett, one that he’ll quickly bounce back from if he has better help near him.

Burnett had to play next to Jerron McMillian — who was so bad that Green Bay released him midway through the season, less than two years after drafting him in the fourth round — and M.D. Jennings, who the Packers let walk in restricted free agency this offseason. It wouldn’t be easy for any safety to look great next to those two.

Complete Packers 2014 draft coverage

Sean Richardson has a lot of potential, and now that he’s fully recovered from a potentially career-ending neck injury, he deserves a chance to show what he can do. Richardson went undrafted just two years ago, and it’s not as if he’s had a lot of opportunities to improve his game since then (given his injury), so expectations for him should be kept in check. But at 6-foot-2, Richardson has the frame to get the job done if he can put some important pieces together.

Chris Banjo will be back for his second year in Green Bay, but he’s much more of a role player than he is a potential starter.

That brings up the all-important Micah Hyde question: How much safety will he play, and how good at it will he be? If the Packers believe the answers to those questions are "a lot" and "very good," then there’s a less pressing need at safety. But if the answers to those questions are "he’ll split his role 50-50" and "we don’t know yet," then Green Bay had better add a top-tier safety in this year’s draft.

Last five safeties drafted

Philosophy at the position

The first-ever pick that Ted Thompson made as general manager of the Green Bay Packers landed the team a future MVP quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. That’s a well-known story. Thompson’s second pick was a great one too, though, selecting Nick Collins in the second round in 2005. That gave the Packers what should have been a 10-year starter and a defensive leader. However, Collins’ career-ending neck injury in Week 2 of the 2011 season really set Green Bay back at the safety position, and Thompson has yet to have the roster recover from it.

Looking at the unimpressive list of safeties Thompson has drafted since taking Collins, aside from Burnett, it’s not hard to believe that this is a position of weakness for the Packers. Culver, Rouse and Underwood aren’t even in the NFL anymore. McMillian may not be far behind. That is a horrible track record for Thompson when it comes to drafting safeties.

Rather than attempting to find another diamond in the rough in the mid-to-late rounds, this is the year that Thompson has little choice but to use one of Green Bay’s first two picks on a safety and cross his fingers that the player chosen can be more like Collins and less like the rest of the busts on this list. Sure, early round picks can bust too, but they’re drafted higher for a reason and have more going for them as prospects than a late-round pick does.

Having a great safety is not nearly as important as having a great quarterback. That’s why the Packers can have a winning record when Rodgers is behind center, even when M.D. Jennings was a starting safety. But for Green Bay’s defense to take a big step in the right direction, a playmaking safety is desperately needed, and it can’t wait another year.

Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)

Calvin Pryor, junior, Louisville (5-11, 207): Pryor is a hitter. A big hitter. That’s a skill that the NFL now frowns upon, levying penalties and fines for hits that used to be considered legal — and would lead the highlight reels. If he can dish it out within the framework of today’s league rules, Pryor will be an immediate defensive presence. Actually, he’ll be intimidating either way, but it will sure help if the officials see the majority of his hits as being clean. He has a great frame and size for the position, plays the run extremely well and is almost always around the ball.

Pryor on where he mostly played on the field: "My first two years at Louisville, I played mostly in the middle of the field. But after becoming a playmaker, causing fumbles, getting interceptions, coaches started moving me around, having the ability to play all over the place."

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Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)

Jimmie Ward, senior, Northern Illinois (5-11, 193): He’s similar to Pryor in his desire to seek out big-hit opportunities. However, Ward is not as big and strong as Pryor, so by comparison, his hits don’t seem to have quite the same impact. Ward put up great numbers in college, and while he’s good in run support and in coverage, he’s a step below Pryor in almost every way. Still, Ward would be a Day 1 starter in Green Bay. So, too, would Washington State’s Deone Bucannon, though he seems less likely than Ward to be around when the Packers are on the clock at No. 53.

Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)

Dezmen Southward, senior, Wisconsin (6-0, 211): Southward would be a good pick sometime around the fifth or sixth round for the Packers. He has good height and strength, and he’s yet another big hitter who plays the run well. Southward’s overall playmaking ability and instincts are in question, but a lot of that comes from his relative inexperience at the position (he didn’t start playing football until his senior year of high school).

FOXSports.com’s draft expert Peter Schrager says:

"Calvin Pryor and (Ha Ha) Clinton-Dix are the two top safeties in the class, and though they’re different, they’d both look awfully good in a Packers uniform. Clinton-Dix is more your classic center fielder type, capable of making plays in coverage and setting the defense from a quarterback mindset. Ward is a smasher, a punishing hitter who made countless big plays at Northern Illinois. He’s a bit more of a box safety than one who excels in coverage."

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