Packers took calculated risk by standing pat at safety

The Packers didn’t draft one, but will their faith in Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings cost them?

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Three safeties were drafted in the first round last week. Two came off the board in the second round, with four more in the third round. In all, 22 were selected in the 2013 NFL Draft, but not one of them by the Green Bay Packers.

Despite a glaring need at the position, Packers general manager Ted Thompson watched as a talented class of safeties found NFL homes elsewhere.

While Green Bay's draft was widely praised as one of the league's most successful, the Packers failed to address what was perhaps their biggest positional weakness.

Since Nick Collins' career-ending neck injury early in the 2011 season, Thompson has had to react to a situation he never expected to encounter so soon. The original plan was simple: Team up Collins, a three-time Pro Bowler, with 2010 third-round pick Morgan Burnett and sit back comfortably for the next decade at safety. That plan had to officially be abandoned in April 2012 when Green Bay released Collins, fearing that another hit near the neck could make things even worse from a medical perspective.

In an effort to become a more physical defense while also bringing in a young safety to replace Collins, the Packers drafted hard-hitting Jerron McMillian in the fourth round in 2012. Early in his rookie season, McMillian was one of Green Bay's most impressive rookies. Adjusting to the NFL from the low-level competition at the University of Maine didn't seem too big of a challenge for McMillian as he played at least 70 percent of the defensive snaps between Weeks 2-5. But gradually, as the season progressed, McMillian's snaps decreased. By playoff time, he was almost completely out of the defensive rotation, on the field for only five combined snaps in two postseason games.

When Charles Woodson -- who played last season at safety on a regular basis for the first time in his career -- suffered a mid-season injury, it was M.D. Jennings, not McMillian, who took the majority of those snaps. Jennings, undrafted in 2011 out of Arkansas State, didn't bring the physical presence of McMillian, but there was a notable improvement in coverage with Jennings in the secondary.

Following Woodson's release earlier this offseason, it seemed logical that the Packers would address the safety position either in free agency or the early rounds of the draft. Thompson, as usual, did not spend any big money on veterans, leaving open the more likely scenario of finding a starting safety with one of the team's top picks.

But it didn't happen, which means Green Bay will go into next season with McMillian and Jennings.

"I'm confident in those young men," Thompson said of those two safeties. "They played well last year."

The problem with McMillian and Jennings last season wasn't in what they did well but in what their games currently lack. McMillian's aggressiveness is more than welcomed on the Packers' defense, but he was pulled from the lineup when he showed a consistent tendency to give up passing plays. Jennings is good in that area, but he's undersized at 187 pounds and won't exactly strike fear into any receivers going across the middle for a catch.

However, at age 24, McMillian and Jennings are both very young, giving coach Mike McCarthy enough reasons to believe that the two of them will be just fine in 2013. McCarthy went as far as to respond "absolutely" when asked after the draft whether he felt good at safety despite not selecting any players at that position.

"We've got some young guys," McCarthy said. "I think we can't forget how many of our young players, our rookies, played on defense last year. Frankly, for as excited as we are about the 2013 draft class, the most improvement of our football team will come from the men that are already in the building. So our young players on defense will be a year better.

"I feel we'll have an opportunity to definitely improve from what they bring to the table, and that's no different at the safety position."

Neglecting to draft a safety with one of the Packers' 11 picks doesn't diminish the other areas in which Green Bay got much better, at least on paper. Defensive line was addressed with Datone Jones (first round) and Josh Boyd (fifth round). Running back was greatly improved with Eddie Lacy (second round) and Johnathan Franklin (fourth round), and the offensive line added depth in the fourth round with David Bakhtiari and J.C. Tretter.

But, with top-tier safety prospects Matt Elam and Jonathan Cyprien available in the first round, J.J. Wilcox and T.J. McDonald there for the taking late in the second round and Shamarko Thomas still on the board in the fourth round, the Packers must be quite confident that McMillian and Jennings will take a big step forward next season. Because if those two don't show the type of improvement Thompson and McCarthy are expecting, one look back at the quality safeties in this class will reveal a clear example of what could have been.

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