GREEN BAY, Wis. — The confidence that the Green Bay Packers have in safety Morgan Burnett continues to grow.
Teammates and coaches praise Burnett’s increased leadership efforts and his improved communication in the secondary, giving the 24-year-old plenty of reasons to feel like a rising star on Green Bay’s roster.
But Burnett isn’t buying into the hype.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” Burnett said. “Nothing is locked down for me. I have to go out and compete every day and that’s what you love about playing this game of football at this level. You’re challenged to go out and compete and go out and perform every day, so that’s going to help you get better as a player.”
Heading into his fourth NFL season, Burnett is a clear-cut starter and one of the team’s best defensive players. He led the Packers in tackles last season and added two interceptions, five passes defensed, two sacks and a team-best two forced fumbles.
Green Bay is going to need that type of production out of Burnett on a yearly basis. Three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins is now 20 months removed from what turned out to be a career-ending neck injury. The Packers’ plan when drafting Burnett in the third round in 2010 was to team him up with Collins for a decade, with Collins always being the veteran leader between the two of them. That all changed though when Collins was carted off the field in September 2011 while in the prime of his career.
Last season, Charles Woodson was converted to safety after 14 years of being one of the NFL’s better cornerbacks. That gave Burnett another year to learn from a proven veteran and is part of what has helped him add the intangible skills that can help Green Bay’s defense now that Woodson is gone.
“I’m not trying to be Charles Woodson,” Burnett said. “Charles Woodson is a Hall of Fame player. I have to come in and try to be the best Morgan Burnett that I can be, be accountable to my teammates and do my job to the best of my ability.”
Burnett’s approach comes across like that of an undrafted rookie who just wants to make the team. That attitude is part of what has allowed him to be successful early in his career and gain the respect of many in the locker room and on the coaching staff.
“Morgan has clearly established himself as the leader back there,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “His communication has been outstanding.”
The starting safety spot next to Burnett, however, is very much in question. It will either be 2012 fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian or 2011 undrafted free agent signee M.D. Jennings.
“It’s an opportunity to compete,” McCarthy said. “When you look at how much M.D. and McMillian played last year, those are two young players that played a lot of snaps. I look for them to make that jump. I look for M.D. to make that second-year player jump. And I look for Jerron McMillian to make that second-year jump.
“It’s going to be very competitive.”
McMillian played 614 snaps as a rookie last season and had 15 tackles, one interception, five passes defensed and one fumble recovery. He was receiving significant playing time early in the year, but when the playoffs began, McMillian was on the field for only five snaps in two games.
“I think it’s more so being consistent and having a better feel of what I have to do,” McMillian said. “I was just going out there playing football, but I had to be a smarter football player, to put myself in better positions.”
When the Packers drafted McMillian, they knew he was a big hitter who needed some work in coverage. And that was exactly how it played out for McMillian in his first NFL season.
“I think from a year ago today, I’ve got better,” McMillian said. “I still have room to improve, but when I came in last year to this time, yeah, I’m slowly but surely making my way.”
Jennings played 617 snaps during the 2012 season and had 39 tackles and one interception returned for a touchdown. When Woodson was injured and missed nine games, Jennings earned the majority of the available playing time ahead of McMillian.
“There’s always going to be competition,” McMillian said. “There’s been competition since I got here. So I’m just trying to improve on the things I need to improve on and still compete at the same time.”
Burnett liked what he saw out of both McMillian and Jennings last season.
“Those guys, they got better as the year went on,” Burnett said. “Those guys understand the defense, they picked it up pretty fast. They have another year under their belt, so they understand the defense. Those guys are athletic and they’re very smart players.”
Though Burnett wouldn’t comment on whether he believes the Packers’ safety group will be better this year, the secondary’s up-and-coming leader showed why he’s getting a reputation as a selfless, team-first player.
“We have a close group,” Burnett said. “I feel we have the guys who are going to go out and compete. We have smart players. It’s just an honor for me to be alongside those guys and it’s going to be fun. We’re looking forward to it.”