Projected starters: Charlie Peprah (seventh season), Morgan Burnett (third season)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *M.D. Jennings, Anthony Levine, *Jerron McMillian, Micah Pellerin, Sean Richardson
The breakdown: The biggest question regarding the names above is the absence of Charles Woodson from the list. The Packers’ safety spot this season could potentially rely heavily on Woodson, a 35-year-old careerlong cornerback. Entering his 15th season, Woodson has been the hot topic of debate since coach Mike McCarthy’s comments earlier this offseason that Woodson’s role will change between 6 and 10 percent.
Woodson has played safety at times in recent seasons in certain defensive packages. However, it appears he will rarely play outside cornerback when Green Bay is in a 3-4 scheme this upcoming season. With only two cornerbacks and two safeties in a 3-4, if Woodson is not on the outside, that means he’s be either at safety or off the field entirely. Even at his age, Woodson is still a very good playmaker, tying for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2011, and it would make sense for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to want his best players on the field. Does that mean Woodson will play safety in the Packers’ 3-4 defensive packages? No one in the organization has made that clear yet, so that may not be answered for a while.
Even if Woodson does play safety, it won’t be full time. Based on Woodson’s role last season, he will spend most of his time in the slot cornerback spot in Green Bay’s nickel defense.
Woodson’s role would not be nearly as much in question if Nick Collins was returning. However, the neck injury Collins suffered last season was bad enough that the Packers released the three-time Pro Bowler. Collins is still looking for another NFL team to give him a chance.
Burnett showed great progress throughout 2011. After a season-ending injury limited him to just four games as a rookie in 2010, Burnett started all 16 games in 2011 despite a broken right hand that had him running around with a club protecting it. Burnett had three interceptions, two forced fumbles, one sack and a lot of one-on-one tackles downfield. At age 23, Burnett appears to have Pro Bowl potential.
Peprah has started 25 games the past two seasons, but he has yet to earn a starting job in training camp and missed the team’s spring workouts with an injury. In 2010, Peprah took over after Burnett went down. In 2011, Peprah became the starter once Collins was out. Peprah’s coverage skills came into question last season as passes continued to sail over the heads of Green Bay’s secondary.
With poor tackling in the secondary a recurring issue, the Packers drafted McMillian. Known as a good tackler who needs to improve in coverage, he likely won’t get significant playing time this season, but could be a starter in Green Bay in a couple years.
Best position battle: Peprah or Jennings? Which of those two will earn the starting safety spot next to Burnett? Peprah has the edge in experience. Capers talked this offseason about how Peprah benefits from having played 900 snaps the past two seasons. But it’s how Peprah performed in those 900 snaps that leaves him susceptible to be replaced. Jennings was an undrafted free-agent signing in 2011, but general manager Ted Thompson has a knack for finding high-quality players in those situations. During minicamp practices, Peprah was out while recovering from a knee injury. That gave Jennings an opportunity to take nearly all of the snaps with the first-team defense, and he looked good. The Packers thought they had their safety position more than set for years to come with Collins and Burnett, but Collins’ injury has opened the door for a young player such as Jennings — or Levine, Pellerin, Richardson or McMillian — to become a major contributor. But in order to do that, someone must first outperform the veteran Peprah in training camp.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Vikings; 2. Packers; 3. Lions; 4. Bears. There is not a team in the division that is very good at safety. None of the four teams has had a Pro Bowl safety the past two seasons, with the now-released Collins being the most recent selection in 2010. The Lions finished 22nd in the NFL in passing yards allowed last season, but somehow that was good enough to be the best in the entire NFC North. That is just one sign of how bad it is for these four teams in the secondary right now. The Packers gave up more passing yards last season than any team in NFL history. The Vikings finished 26th in passing yards allowed, and the Bears were 28th. That doesn’t all fall on the safeties, as a big part of Green Bay’s struggles in that area last season was due to a lack of pass rush. The Vikings drafted Harrison Smith in the first round, so he should help Minnesota immediately. Other than that, division quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford could again put up record numbers in part because of the NFC North’s weakness at safety.
Peprah says: “I still have room to improve. I’ve gotten better every season the past two seasons. This third year is going to be my best one yet. I still have so much room to grow. I’ve only been a two-year starter. We’ve got different skill sets, but it took Nick Collins until third or fourth year to go to the Pro Bowl. It just takes time. As long as I keep improving, that’s my main goal. I really do believe this year is going to be my best one yet.”