This is the eighth in a series of 14 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: SAFETIES
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Projected starters: Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Micah Hyde, *Sean Richardson, *Chris Banjo, Charles Clay, Tanner Miller
What a mess the safety position was last season for the Green Bay Packers. No interceptions, no forced fumbles, few meaningful plays. The individual performances were so disappointing that the Packers released 2012 fourth-round Jerron McMillian late in the season and didn’t give a restricted free-agent offer to M.D. Jennings (who then signed with the Chicago Bears on a one-year, minimum-dollar deal).
Morgan Burnett survived to tell the tale, but as noted in a recent story, he didn’t think of it as a personal setback at all and "didn’t look at it as a bad season or anything like that." Expectations were high for Burnett as he had just signed a four-year, $24.75 million contract extension before the 2013 season began. He clearly didn’t live up to that, but it doesn’t mean that Burnett is a bad player. He showed enough promise early in his career to earn the money that Green Bay gave him. The most important factor for Burnett is making last season the worst of his career and showing drastic improvement this season.
Burnett didn’t have a bad attitude towards his former teammates (he even went so far as to call Jennings a "great NFL safety"), but as former Packers star LeRoy Butler mentioned, even a great safety won’t look good if stuck next to subpar players.
Green Bay did its best this offseason to fix what it should have addressed last offseason. Rather than drafting a safety in 2013, the Packers tried to make it through with the group they had. That clearly didn’t work out. Learning from that mistake, Green Bay used its first-round draft pick on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who many analysts and scouts believed was the best safety in the draft class (despite Calvin Pryor being picked before him). But the Packers aren’t solely counting on Clinton-Dix to reverse the bad fortunes of last season. They began the process earlier this offseason of converting Micah Hyde into a safety / slot cornerback hybrid.
After the trio of Burnett, Clinton-Dix and Hyde, Green Bay has all undrafted players filling out the roster at safety. Sean Richardson has the most talent and promise among that group, as his height (6-foot-2) gives him an advantage. Chris Banjo is back for Year 2 with the team, but if he makes the roster again it will likely be more as a special teams contributor. Undrafted rookies Charles Clay and Tanner Miller will be fighting for a roster spot that is very much there for the taking.
Best position battle: Clinton-Dix vs. Hyde
The only thing that made some fans believe the Packers didn’t need to draft a safety in the early rounds this year was because of the possibility that Hyde could make a successful transition. Head coach Mike McCarthy had identified Hyde as one of the team’s 11-best defensive players and therefore wanted to find a way to keep the 2013 fifth-round pick on the field at all times. It made sense for Hyde to switch, too. It was a move that was widely discussed even moments after Green Bay drafted Hyde that he would play safety sooner or later. During OTAs and minicamp, it was Hyde who got the first-team reps at safety next to Burnett.
Clinton-Dix is a very highly-touted prospect. Coming from the football powerhouse that is Alabama, he’s a player that most people knew of even before the draft. Clinton-Dix didn’t slide far in the draft, but there weren’t many scenarios that would have seen him falling to the 21st pick like he did. But it’s going to take a very impressive training camp for Clinton-Dix to be a Week 1 starter because the Packers’ coaching staff loves and trusts Hyde. It’s been a while since Green Bay has had a first-round pick make an impact as a rookie, but Clinton-Dix will have the opportunities to break that streak. He’ll need to show up completely ready to go from the first day on in training camp to make it happen, though.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Lions; 2. Vikings; 3. Packers; 4. Bears
Detroit’s acquisition of Glover Quin was a very good signing during the 2013 offseason. He was rated by ProFootballFocus as the NFL’s 10th-best safety last season, and at age 28, he should have several good years ahead of him. The Lions had a fairly even exchange this offseason at the safety spot next to Quin, getting rid of Louis Delmas and bringing in James Ihedigbo, who’s coming off a good season in Baltimore. Minnesota’s Harrison Smith had a great rookie season in 2012, but his play fell off a bit last season while also being limited to eight games due to injury. Next to Smith is sixth-year Viking Jamarca Sanford, a solid-but-unspectacular player. With the addition of Clinton-Dix and the new hybrid role for Hyde, Green Bay might not be in that bad of shape. It’s conceivable to believe that safety could actually be a position of strength by midseason if Burnett bounces back, if Clinton-Dix is ready for the NFL and if Hyde’s switch goes well. Chicago’s safety group is perhaps a bigger mess than what the Packers’ was last season, at least on paper. ProFootballFocus had Chris Conte as the fourth-worst safety in the NFL last season, while the offseason addition of former Giant and Steeler Ryan Mundy is only going to improve that group somewhat.