Collins’ uncertain future makes safety a need

Today is the 12th day of two weeks of Green Bay Packers coverage leading up to the April 26 beginning of the NFL draft.

April 12: Five best first-rounders in the past 25 years
April 13: Five worst first-rounders in the past 25 years
April 14: Quarterbacks position preview
April 15: Running backs/fullbacks position preview
April 16: Offensive tackles position preview
April 17: Guards/centers position preview
April 18: Tight ends position preview
April 19: Wide receivers position preview
April 20: Defensive linemen position preview
April 21: Linebackers position preview
April 22: Cornerbacks position preview
Today: Safeties position preview
April 24: Ted Thompson’s draft strategy
April 25: Forecasting the first-round pick

Importance (1-to-10 scale): 7

On the roster

Will Nick Collins be back with the Packers in 2012? That is one of the biggest questions this offseason and is the reason why there’s such great uncertainty at the safety position entering the draft. The serious neck injury suffered by Collins in Week 2 last season has his NFL career in jeopardy. And while Collins hoped to give Green Bay’s front office an answer by the draft so that the team could plan accordingly, that will not end up happening.

If Collins is back and healthy, the Packers don’t really need much help at safety. Collins is a three-time Pro Bowler and only 28-years-old.

Aside from Collins, Morgan Burnett appears to be on his way to playmaker status after only two NFL seasons. Even when Burnett was playing with a club on his hand last season due to a broken hand, he was playing well. When the club came off, Burnett made open-field one-on-one tackles look like a simple task.

The duo of Collins and Burnett could be one of the NFL’s best safety combinations, especially with Charles Woodson playing back there in certain defensive packages.

However, Burnett and Charlie Peprah? Not so much. These two played the final 15 weeks of the season together and were a big reason why the Packers were worst in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Countless times throughout the year Peprah and Burnett turned around as long touchdown passes sailed over their heads. They were a big reason why Mike McCarthy used the word “miscommunication” like a broken record during the season.

The other backup at safety is M.D. Jennings, a 2011 non-drafted free agent pick-up.

Last five safeties drafted

2010–Morgan Burnett, Georgia Tech: third round (71st overall)–still with the Packers
2009–Brandon Underwood, Cincinnati: sixth round (187th overall)–released in 2011, now with Oakland
2007–Aaron Rouse, Virginia Tech: third round (89th overall)–released in 2009, out of the NFL
2006–Tyrone Culver, Fresno State: sixth round (185th overall)–released in 2008, now with Miami
2005–Nick Collins, Bethune-Cookman: second round (51st overall)–still with the Packers

Philosophy at the position

The success of Collins over the past seven years has given general manager Ted Thompson the ability to build other parts of his team with most of his early picks in the draft. Yes, the Packers struck out with Rouse in the third round in 2007, but after taking two years off, Thompson found Burnett in 2010.

However, the uncertainty of Collins’ situation (which appears to be leaning more towards him not playing) means it’s time for Thompson to invest a high draft pick in a safety.

Unfortunately, this is a really bad year to be looking for a starting safety in the draft.

Day 1 name to remember (Round 1)

Mark Barron, senior, Alabama (6-1, 213 ). Barron is by far the best safety in this draft class. He may actually be the only good safety in the entire draft. He is a top-15 talent, but was unable to participate at the Draft Combine while he recovered from offseason surgery. That could drop his stock on draft night, and if it does, it could be a huge coup for the Packers. Whether Collins returns or not, Barron would be an unbelievable value selection at No. 28. He played at the highest level of college football while winning a championship with Alabama and does everything well on defense.

Day 2 name to remember (Rounds 2-3)

Harrison Smith, senior, Notre Dame (6-2, 213). There’s Barron and then there’s everyone else at safety. But, Smith is the next-best player available at the position in this draft. He’s not a first-round talent, but if he’s available at No. 58 for the Packers in the second round, he could be the pick. He has good height and size, and, as a former linebacker, he tackles well.

Day 3 name to remember (Rounds 4-7)

Aaron Henry, senior, Wisconsin (6-0, 208). Given the general lack of depth at safety in this draft, Henry is one of eight players who are all ranked about the same. So, maybe Henry was able to separate himself from that pack and winds up in Green Bay with one of the Packers late seventh-round picks (Nos. 235, 241 and 243). Henry is a hard worker and a leader, and by that late in the draft, sometimes it’s worth giving a shot to a player that the team is confident will come in and give it his all. draft expert Taylor Jones says:

“This is a terrible class for safeties. If teams didn’t address it in free agency, they’re going to struggle to find a player that can make their roster. Unless you’re talking about converting a cornerback to a safety, the guy better be good in special teams. The safety position has been so bad the past couple years, actually.

“The Packers could move Charles Woodson to safety and then find another corner, or maybe take a corner in the second round and have him player safety in the short term if Woodson stays at corner.

“Harrison Smith is a big-time stretch in the first round. He’s a reliable, blue-collar guy, not flashy by any means. I like him better in the second round. I have him going to Philadelphia with the 51st pick. But is he good enough to justify picking him for value?”

Follow Paul Imig on Twitter.