Packers likely to draft safety early

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Morgan Burnett will start at safety for the Green Bay Packers next season, just like he has for every game of the past two years. That’s not in question for coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers in planning next year’s team.

Finding a starter to play next to Burnett at safety, however, is an issue that the Packers need to address this offseason.

Following the release of veteran Charles Woodson — who had been converted to safety — in mid-February, Green Bay’s current choices are M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian and Sean Richardson.

Richardson, who was signed in 2012 after not being drafted, is a project. His 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame is the biggest of any of the Packers’ safeties, but he battled injuries throughout his rookie year and played only 16 snaps on defense. Though he could be a special player in the NFL, expecting too much out of him early in his career would be a mistake.

If nothing changes between now and training camp, the competition to determine the starting safety next to Burnett would ultimately be between Jennings and McMillian. Each player offers different positives and negatives. McMillian is an aggressive big hitter but struggles in coverage. Jennings is fast and better in coverage but doesn’t bring nearly the same physical presence as McMillian.

Of course, having flaws on the field isn’t unique to McMillian and Jennings. Even Burnett has areas in which he needs to improve. But going into next season depending on McMillian or Jennings to be starters and significant contributors on Green Bay’s defense would be asking a lot of two young, relatively inexperienced players.

“I thought McMillian was a splash player at times,” McCarthy said at the Scouting Combine. “For a young guy, he was inconsistent, but I really like his skill set. I like his work ethic. He has some toughness. He has the ability to make impact plays.

“M.D., I thought definitely took a big step moving forward. He needs to get stronger. At the end of the day, he graded out probably a little bit higher than I would have thought.

“The most important part of both of those guys is they have a lot of growth in front of them.”

Can McMillian, a fourth-round pick in 2012, improve his consistency? There’s little reason to believe he can’t. Can Jennings get stronger? He’s light for the position at 195 pounds, but his body might allow for some extra bulk eventually.

It’s not that either player couldn’t potentially make drastic improvements this offseason and be ready to start alongside Burnett in 2013. It could happen. But it would be a risky decision by general manager Ted Thompson to not have a better option in place for his coaching staff.

That’s where Thompson’s specialty, the NFL Draft, comes into play.

This year’s class of safeties is terrific. The group is headlined by Kenny Vaccaro, a very talented 6-foot-1 player out of Texas. Vaccaro is too good to be around when it’s the Packers’ turn at No. 26, but the next tier of safeties is still tremendous.

There’s Matt Elam out of Florida, whose only significant weakness is his size at 5-foot-10. Aside from that, Elam does just about everything well. He would become an instant starter on Green Bay’s defense and should be available late in the first round.

Eric Reid of LSU is big, physical and likes to hit. Like McMillian, though, he struggles in coverage at times. Jonathan Cyprien of Florida International is good in pass coverage and in stopping the run, but he didn’t play against major competition in college.

One of these four players (Vaccaro, Elam, Reid, Cyprien) should be on the Packers’ roster by the end of the first or second round. Safety is the team’s biggest area of need, and not addressing it in the draft with a class of players this good could prove costly.

Thompson shouldn’t have to be thinking about drafting a safety. He thought Nick Collins would be an instrumental player in Green Bay for another decade. But an unfortunate neck injury in 2011 seemingly ended the career of the three-time Pro Bowl safety right in Collins’ prime.

That leaves the Packers in need of finding Collins’ replacement 18 months after he was carted off the field in Carolina.

The upcoming draft offers a perfect chance for Thompson to add a great safety prospect like Vaccaro, Elam, Reid or Cyprien. These are not project players. These are players capable of starting 16 games as rookies and performing at a high level, just like safety Harrison Smith (the 29th overall pick in the 2012 draft) did for the Minnesota Vikings.

This is the perfect year for the Packers to be in need of a safety. Burnett’s future partner is out there, ready and able to give Green Bay’s secondary the boost that it needs and help the Packers recover from the devastating setback that Collins’ neck injury has created in their defense.

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