When Morgan Burnett signed a five-year contract extension in 2013, it seemed like a reasonable deal. One year later, it seems like one the Packers would like a do-over on, mainly because Burnett didn't make many big plays in 2013.
Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers’ success in the 2014 season. Check back each weekday to see the latest player on the list. You can find the entire list here.
NOTE: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players, but rather it’s a list of which players mean the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
NO. 4 – MORGAN BURNETT, SAFETY
25/Fifth NFL season
WHY HE’S NO. 4
It’s been written and stated over and over since January, but it’s a point that has to continue being mentioned: not a single Green Bay Packers safety had an interception last season. That’s a position group that included Jerron McMillian (a 2012 fourth-round pick who underperformed so much that he was released in December 2013) and M.D. Jennings (a two-year starter who the Packers didn’t even make an attempt to bring back this offseason). Those aren’t exactly two high-quality safeties, so reasonable expectations for them should have been low.
Morgan Burnett, however, is a drastically better player than McMillian and Jennings.
Burnett is too talented to have the type of season that he did in 2013. It wasn’t just the lack of interceptions, it was the lack of big plays altogether. It can quite easily be argued, as former Packers safety LeRoy Butler did during this year’s draft, that no safety — no matter how good — can perform at a high level when tag-teamed with players like McMillian and Jennings. Mediocre players can sometimes make good players seem average if paired together. But great players should make mediocre teammates at least look average, and Burnett didn’t help McMillian or Jennings get there. Instead, Burnett was dragged down by them.
Burnett is No. 4 on this list because he needs to be the leader of a position group that was the Packers’ weakest each of the past two seasons. He needs to make the 2013 season that one bad year of his career that was never repeated. Burnett needs an interception just to put an end to that streak, even though interceptions are far from the only important thing that he can do for Green Bay this season. He needs to bounce back, and he needs to do it in a big way.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2014
McMillian and Jennings are gone, being replaced by first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and converted slot corner Micah Hyde. That is a significant talent upgrade at the safety position next to Burnett. Not that Burnett used the poor play of McMillian and Jennings as an excuse, but he’ll no longer get the benefit of the doubt from former players like Butler if he struggles again now that those two aren’t around. Hyde has been identified by the Packers coaching staff as one of the defense’s best 11 players and Clinton-Dix was the team’s top pick this year for a reason. If Hyde learns the position quickly and Clinton-Dix transitions well to the NFL, the two of them along with Burnett could suddenly turn safety into a strength on Green Bay’s roster.
When Burnett signed a five-year, $26 million ($8.25 million guaranteed) contract extension during the 2013 offseason, it seemed like a reasonable deal for a young, ascending player. One year later, it seems like one that general manager Ted Thompson would like a do-over on. It’s not that Burnett is a bad player, but giving him that much money made him a "core player" — an important title that was most recently given to Sam Shields. Burnett’s cap number will grow from more than $5 million next season to more than $7 million by 2017, so he’ll need to get back to the player he was when he earned that contract.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?
Having the trio of Burnett, Hyde and Clinton-Dix at safety gives Green Bay more solid options than its had at that position since Nick Collins’ injury in 2011. That gives the Packers some breathing room if Burnett struggles or if he misses time due to injury. But, even though Burnett was drafted in 2010 to help Collins out, it’s now up to Burnett to lead the group the way that Collins used to. That’s the next step in Burnett’s development, and whether he’s able to do that will determine just how good of a player he is. Burnett is certainly talented enough to achieve that. Hyde and Clinton-Dix will help, but it’s on Burnett to be the best player at the position this season.
Green Bay has other options, too, beginning with Sean Richardson. He’s fully recovered from neck surgery and has the body type (6-foot-2) to be disruptive in the secondary. Chris Banjo is undersized (5-foot-10), but he does a lot of things well that help him get on the field. The Packers will also take a close look at undrafted rookies Tanner Miller and Charles Clay, both of whom have a legitimate shot at making the 2014 team simply due to there only being 6.5 (Hyde should only count as a half, at least for now) safeties on the 90-man roster.