This is the eighth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: SAFETIES
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 5
Projected starters: Morgan Burnett (fourth season), Jerron McMillian (second season)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *M.D. Jennings, *Sean Richardson, Chaz Powell, David Fulton
There’s a name that’s missing from this list of players who was supposed to be part of the Green Bay Packers’ long-term plan at safety. That player is, of course, Nick Collins. It’s difficult to have a better NFL career at safety before the age of 28 than what Collins was having. Three Pro Bowls, being named second-team All-Pro three years in a row and winning a Super Bowl ring is more than most players ever accomplish. Collins’ neck injury in Week 2 of the 2011 season ended his career prematurely and put general manager Ted Thompson in a spot to have to rebuild the Packers’ safety position on the fly.
The one piece that was added at safety before Collins’ injury was Morgan Burnett, who was a third-round pick in 2010. Burnett is the real deal. After an injury-shortened rookie season in 2010, Burnett has started every game over the past two years and played very well. His career sack total (three) and interception total (six) is relatively low, but he’s forced two fumbles in each of the past two seasons and led Green Bay in tackles (123) last season. Thompson and his front-office staff are betting that Burnett, 24, still has a lot of room to improve. That confidence in Burnett is why the Packers just agreed to re-sign him to a four-year, $24.75 million extension.
There’s no reason for Packers fans to worry about Burnett performing at a high level. He’s a consistent player who works hard off the field and is already emerging as a leader on the defense at a young age. However, Green Bay’s safety group is one of its thinnest positions. There are just six safeties on the Packers’ 90-man training camp roster, and one of them — David Fulton — was just added in late May. Only two of the six safeties were even draft picks (Burnett, Jerron McMillian). This is a risky strategy and is one reason that Thompson may regret having not drafted a safety this year. Yes, Green Bay addressed other need areas in the draft (defensive line in Rounds 1 and 5, running back in Rounds 2 and 4, two offensive linemen in Round 4), but not bringing in a safety in a class that had several great prospects seems like a misfire on Thompson’s part.
Best position battle:
Who will win the starting job next to Burnett: McMillian or M.D. Jennings? Burnett is an unquestioned starter. That’s obvious. But the competition between McMillian and Jennings will be one of the most important training camp battles for the Packers this year.
McMillian should emerge victorious. He was a fourth-round pick in 2012 and wasn’t drafted that high to spend too many years as a backup, especially not playing behind an undrafted player like Jennings. That’s not to say undrafted players can’t be better in the NFL than middle-round draft picks, but it’s clearly not supposed to happen that way. Green Bay has several successful undrafted players on its roster: Sam Shields, Evan Dietrich-Smith and DuJuan Harris, to name a few. Jennings, who played 616 snaps last season, is also a part of that impressive undrafted player list. But the expectation is for fourth-round picks like McMillian to eventually outperform undrafted players like Jennings.
Behind McMillian and Jennings, the Packers don’t have many options. Sean Richardson — who made the team in 2012 as an undrafted free agent and looked promising — is a major question mark after undergoing offseason neck surgery. If Burnett misses any games with injury this season, Green Bay’s secondary is in significant trouble.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North:
1. Vikings; 2. Packers; 3. Bears; 4. Lions
Green Bay is fortunate to be in a division that doesn’t feature any of the NFL’s elite safeties. It’s between Burnett and Minnesota’s Harrison Smith as to who the NFC North’s best safety is. After one season, Smith appears to be on the verge of becoming a great player, but he’ll need to build upon his rookie success. Chicago’s Major Wright is coming off a good 2012 season, but the Bears’ other starter, 24-year-old Chris Conte, needs to show improvement. Detroit’s safety situation is shaky with holdover Louis Delmas and offseason addition Glover Quin as the likely starters.
“I don’t take nothing for granted. 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. I’m not trying to be Charles Woodson. 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.”