GREEN BAY - With all the talk this offseason about alterations to the Green Bay Packers' defense – less scheme, more personnel groupings, greater creativity, increased involvement from coach Mike McCarthy – you haven't heard much about adjustments to the way the Packers play in the secondary.
That's because they feel good about their talent in the back end and the way they've upgraded the safety position with the first-round selection of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the transition of Micah Hyde.
"Our system's not going to change. We are what we are," safeties coach Darren Perry said in advance of training camp, which kicks off Saturday at Ray Nitschke Field. "Again, the more talent you have, hopefully that equates to more productivity and more big plays. We'll just have to see how that works out."
The Packers certainly have the requisite talent at cornerback, where veteran Tramon Williams appeared to regain his pre-shoulder injury form of 2010 during the second half of last season; Sam Shields played well enough to earn a four-year, $40 million contract in March; Casey Hayward, who was third in the NFL defensive rookie of the year balloting in 2012, is healthy after missing all but three games last season with a torn hamstring; and Davon House, who like Williams is in the final year of his contract, has been in the mix for a starting job on multiple occasions but misfortune or injury have prevented him from sustaining that success. And old vet Jarrett Bush, who had a critical interception against Atlanta last season, is there in case of emergency.
‘In my opinion, we have to be a top group. We have to be able to make splash plays and get the ball when the ball is needed," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "When we need an interception or when we need a third-down stop, we have to make those stops consistently. We did some of that late in the year with Tramon and Sam's [interceptions] in Dallas, JB's play in Atlanta. We made some of those plays. We have to make them more consistently.
"That's our focus right now is when a game-winning play is on the line and we're there to make it, we need to make it. That's where our focus is."
That's where the safeties' focus is, too, and there's significantly more room for improvement in that area after the group failed to intercept a single pass last season – making the Packers the only team in the NFL not to get at least one INT from the position.
That starts with Morgan Burnett, who signed a four-year, $24.75 million contract extension last July but didn't deliver the Pro Bowl-caliber season his coaches were expecting in his fourth year. Instead, while the staff remains high on him, he'll have to prove that he is capable of being the difference-maker he's purported to be.
It may help that whoever he's paired with – Hyde, who took the first-team snaps all offseason in practice, or Clinton-Dix – will be an upgrade over the departed M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, neither of whom proved to be good enough. McMillian was cut at midseason, while Jennings started all 17 games (including playoffs) but wasn't issued a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent and went south to Chicago on a one-year deal.
Asked if Burnett will benefit from better play alongside him, Perry replied, "I don't know. As far as individual play? You're going to be a better defense the better players you have around, but I don't think one guy coming in and playing beside him is going to make him play any harder. That's on him. He's going to be what he is.
"I think as a defensive unit, the more talent you have out there, the better you're going to be. Any time you upgrade your defense, it's going to help everyone, not just one individual."
And Hyde and Clinton-Dix will both be upgrades. If the offseason form holds through training camp, Hyde will start in the team's base defense, then slide to a slot position in the nickel or dime, with Clinton-Dix coming off the bench. While the coaches toyed with the idea of moving Hyde to safety last year, they ultimately decided that a midseason switch wouldn't be the right move and decided to hold off until the offseason.
"I think it's a great opportunity for me. I think it shows the coaches have trust in me to be on the field and make some plays, so I'm excited," Hyde said. "Whatever it is, I'm going to be out there trying to do my best."
Although Perry admitted that the position switch is a challenge for Hyde, he likes what he saw throughout organized team activities and the minicamp.
"It's a different game, and there's a learning curve, and he's learning right now," Perry said. "The communication is a lot different than playing corner, and just the vision, how you see the field. There's a lot more that goes into it than just lining up and playing centerfield or playing half field.
"We're just trying to get our best guys on the field, [but] you just don't want to throw a guy in there that hasn't had the preparation. Again, it's too early to tell on anything. We haven't had any pads on, haven't made any tackles or anything of that sort."
Clinton-Dix, meanwhile, will have every opportunity to overtake Hyde, with 21 practices and four preseason games to prove he's ready to play as a rookie.
"Obviously, he's played at a big-time program at Alabama. He's showing signs already. I like what I see," Williams said. "He has the size, he has the range, he has the ability to be a high-profile player. I'm glad we got him."
QUICK READ: DEFENSIVE BACKS
|38||Tramon Williams||CB||5-11||191||31||8||Louisiana Tech|
|37||Sam Shields||CB||5-11||184||26||5||Miami (Fla.)|
|42||Morgan Burnett||S||6-1||209||25||5||Georgia Tech|
|31||Davon House||CB||6-0||195||25||4||New Mexico State|
|24||Jarrett Bush||CB||6-0||200||30||9||Utah State|
How much will the safety play improve?
It's hard to fathom it being worse after Burnett's disappointing season, the now-departed M.D. Jennings' uninspiring play and Jerron McMillian, the 2012 fourth-round pick who should have developed into a starter, long gone. With Hyde having shifted to safety this offeason and the selection of Clinton-Dix, the position has already improved. Given how confidently the coaches talk about Burnett, the expectation for him is to elevate his play to the level of his compensation. While it's unrealistic to think the Packers' safety play will rival that of the Seattle Seahawks, whose tandem of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas is the league's best, Seattle's No. 1 defensive ranking should serve as a reminder of how vital it is to have quality safety play. The Packers are due to get that back.
On the rise
The highest praise a player can get is to be called "a football player" when someone is asked to describe his skill set. That's Hyde. Cornerback, safety, whatever it may be, the kid gets it. He understands the game and plays with a football IQ that allows him to overcome whatever shortcomings he may have in the natural ability department. He made an impression almost immediately last year as a rookie fifth-round pick, and while the coaches tried to downplay the significance of him getting all the first-team safety reps ahead of Clinton-Dix this offseason, it's clear at this point that Hyde will be playing a lot on defense this season, whether it's at safety or defending slot receivers.
Player to watch
After a wasted year, Hayward is looking to recapture his pre-hamstring injury form. He played in just three games last season because of the injury, which first occurred while he was working out on his own before camp, was aggravated in a preseason game against Seattle on Aug. 23 and reinjured against Philadelphia on Nov. 10. That was all she wrote for him, and he wound up on injured reserve. Considering he finished third in the balloting for NFL defensive rookie of the year in 2012, when he had six interceptions, his return will make a huge difference in the secondary, especially when you consider his playmaking ability and the lack of playmakers the defense had on the field last season.
Hyde vs. Clinton-Dix.
In a dream draft scenario, the Packers were able to marry the best player available on their board to their most glaring defensive need and draft Clinton-Dix No. 21 overall. But that doesn't mean Clinton-Dix is assured of starting. Surprisingly, it was Hyde that took all the first-team reps throughout the offseason, or at least at every practice that was open to reporters. Clinton-Dix, meanwhile, was relegated to working with the 2s. That doesn't mean the first-round pick can't still win the job, even with only 21 total practices in camp, but it would seem the more likely scenario would have Hyde playing safety in the base defense – something the Packers have played only 24 percent of the time since Dom Capers became coordinator – and Clinton-Dix coming in at safety in sub packages. The Packers have a little more than a month to figure it out.
On Thursday, Williams got a Tweet of encouragement from NFL Network analyst and Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, telling him to get back to being the "difference maker that plays with an attitude and make plays every game." Truth be told, Williams did that during the second half of last season. Still, this could be his final year in Green Bay. The 31-year-old Williams is among the team's longest-tenured players, and only defensive end/outside linebacker Julius Peppers (34) and fullback John Kuhn (31, older by six months) are older than he is. He's entering the final year of the contract extension he received in 2010.
"I still think Morgan's a heck of a football player. I know our critics may not agree, but again, Morgan's going to be fine and he's still a young player, ascending, and we've just got to keep him going." – Safeties coach Darren Perry, on the much-maligned Burnett.
Next: Special teams.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.