GREEN BAY, Wis. - Darren Perry knows a thing or two about going young at the safety position.
Not only did the Green Bay Packers safeties coach start at safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a rookie in 1992 as an eighth-round draft pick in 1992, but he also looked Steelers coach Bill Cowher in the eye in 2004 and told him they had to start two safeties who'd never started a single NFL game.
So if Perry is supposed to be worried about that fact that the three safeties in the mix for the Packers' two starting jobs – Morgan Burnett, the unquestioned starter and leader of the defense who just signed a four-year, $24.75 million extension, and Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings, who'll begin their for the other spot when training camp starts Friday – are all just 24 years old, well, you've got the wrong guy.
"Some guys frown upon that (youth), some guys get apprehensive and nervous," Perry said in advance of Friday's camp-opening practice. "I think back to my second year in Pittsburgh (as an assistant coach), when we decided to start Troy Polamalu and Chris Hope. The year prior, those guys didn't see the field hardly at all, and Troy struggled.
"Then the next year, Bill (Cowher) said, ‘Who are your two starting safeties?' And I said, ‘Coach, it's time to go with Chris and Troy.' And he says, ‘You're going to start Chris Hope and Troy Polamalu?' ‘Yeah, we are coach. It's time.'"
Polamalu, the team's first-round pick (No. 16 overall) in 2003, went on to have the first of seven Pro Bowl seasons and is in the later stages of a potentially Pro Football Hall of Fame career. Hope, a third-round pick in 2002 who'd played in 30 games but never started, started all 16 games that year and is now with the Detroit Lions.
In Green Bay, Perry has Burnett, whom he believes is ticketed for big things. He's entering his fourth NFL season, the magical year that former Packers safeties LeRoy Butler (1993), Darren Sharper (2000) and Nick Collins (2008) all earned their first Pro Bowl nods. Jennings and McMillian, meanwhile, will start camp dead even.
Although Jennings started all nine games Charles Woodson missed last season with a broken collarbone, the two young safeties ended up playing almost the same number of snaps. Jennings played 616 snaps in 18 games (including playoffs) and finished with 51 tackles, one interception (which he returned 72 yards for a touchdown) and eight passes broken up. McMillian didn't start a game but played 614 snaps in 18 games and finished with 31 tackles, one interception and 13 pass breakups.
"We won't use youth or lack of experience as an excuse. Those guys have plenty of it – 600-some snaps apiece last year. That's plenty of snaps," Perry said. "Morgan has been here and he's still 24, still young. It's time for all those guys to step forward and be what we expect them to be."
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is unconcerned about the youth ("I don't know if there's three younger safeties in the league at that position," he said) and firmly believes that Burnett, who's started 35 straight games (including playoffs) since he returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended his 2010 rookie season, is poised for big things.
"He's made progress each year. Smart, very coachable, from a coach's standpoint you have great confidence that he's going to be accountable and he's got playmaking ability," Capers said. "I think he's at a point in terms of being your quarterback and taking over the communication and all those kinds of things, he's confident. He's been around here for three years. He played every play last year."
The team still holds out hope that Sean Richardson, who made the team as an undrafted free agent from Vanderbilt but was lost for the season to a neck injury that he still hadn't been cleared on during organized team activity practices, has hard-hitting potential, and the only other safeties currently on the roster are practice-squadder Chaz Powell and undrafted rookie free agent David Fulton, from tiny Chowan University.
There's no such depth issue at cornerback, where the Packers have four starting-caliber players in Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. While there are questions about each player – from Williams trying to regain his 2010 form, to Shields slow start and ankle injury before his strong finish, to Hayward needing to avoid a sophomore slump as his role expands to House's apparent inability to stay healthy – there's no denying the talent at the coaches' disposal.
"We have a lot of depth, obviously. Over the past years, I don't think we had as much depth as we do now. So it's definitely going to be a good training camp, great competition," Williams said. "It's going to be something to see when training camp starts."
More interesting to see will be where everyone lines up. The assumption would be that Williams and Shields would work outside and Hayward would be the third cornerback in the nickel and cover the slot, but both Capers and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt made it clear that they don't want to pigeonhole any of their cornerbacks. While it's true Hayward was projected as a slot corner coming out of Vanderbilt as a second-round pick a year ago, the staff believes he can play outside. House, who worked outside when he was healthy last year (nine games, including five starts) is physical enough to play inside if necessary. Williams has lined up all over the field since becoming the team's nickel corner in 2007, and Shields' speed is best suited outside but can move inside in a pinch. Although he's a safety, McMillian worked inside as the second slot cover man in dime situations last year, too.
"We're trying to work as many guys to learn the inside as we can. I think we're going to have more options, and you'll see us in training camp work more guys inside so we're prepared if we lose a player or two," Capers explained. "But that's where a guy like McMillian gives you good flexibility because he's a safety in your ‘Okie' (base defense) stuff and moves to dime. Casey's played some at corner for us but he was primarily a nickel. A young guy like (rookie fifth-round pick) Micah Hyde will be interesting to see how he fits into the mix there, because I think he's an instinctive young guy."
Last season, Williams played 1,240 snaps in 18 games and allowed 63 receptions for 852 yards on 115 targets, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Opposing quarterbacks had a 77.5 passer rating when throwing against him, largely because he had just two interceptions but was charged with only two touchdowns allowed while facing opponents' top receivers each week. He claims he feels the best he has since his 2011 shoulder injury and the resulting nerve damage that left him playing one-armed for the rest of that season.
"We asked Tramon to do some things that wasn't the best for him, but that's a part of football," Whitt said. "This year, I will say this, I'm so pleased with Tramon and Tramon's going to play high-level football because we're going to allow every one of those guys in that room to do what they do best. I feel that Tramon's going to — I'm not going to say he's going to have his best year yet, but he is the least of my worries. He is the least of my worries."
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Will Williams ever be the same?
The same question was posed here in this very space a year ago, and the jury remains out. Although Williams was better than he was in 2011, when truth be told he probably should have missed more than just one game, it's unclear whether he'll ever reach his 2010 level, when he was a shutdown cornerback and among the league's top cover men. One thing cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has promised: Williams won't spend every game matched up on the opponent's top target, if Shields, Hayward and House show the growth he expects. If that's the case, Williams will benefit.
On the rise
Hayward received serious consideration in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year balloting, finishing third behind Carolina's Luke Kuechly and Seattle's Bobby Wagner. Now, the coaches must decide whether he should remain on the slot receiver in the team's nickel and dime defenses or be given the opportunity to play every down as one of the team's top two cover men. That would mean bumping Williams or Shields, who came on strong late last season after missing six games with a sprained ankle. Whitt believes Hayward has the talent of a No. 1 cornerback and made it clear after the season ended that it will be an open competition for the starting jobs. Hayward could make things very interesting.
Player to watch
It's easy to forget that in the early days of training camp last year, Shields played poorly and then suffered an elbow injury, and Hayward hadn't done much of anything of note. House, meanwhile, put together back-to-back eye-catching days of practice once the pads came on and earned the starting corner job opposite Williams for the preseason opener at San Diego. Alas, a shoulder injury suffered on special teams in the second half derailed any chance he had of winning a starting job, and while he was able to come back and play in nine games (with five starts), his window for being the team's breakout player in the secondary had closed for the year. Now, fresh off offseason surgery to repair the shoulder, he could thrust himself back into the starting lineup discussion with a strong – and healthy – camp.
Safety opposite Burnett.
The Packers could have gone one of three ways at the safety position alongside Burnett: They could have signed one of a host of free-agent veterans – Michael Huff, for example, was reportedly set to visit before signing with Baltimore; they could have picked one in a draft where safety was viewed as the deepest position across the board; or they could have stood pat with what they had. They went with Door No. 3. Thus, just as they did last year behind veteran Charles Woodson, McMillian and Jennings will battle for a job. This time, though, it's not for the quasi-starting job in the nickel defense, when Woodson would move to the slot and be replaced at safety. Rather, this is for the full-time gig next to Burnett. Both players saw 600 snaps of defensive action last year but neither distinguished himself. Give McMillian a slight edge as one of Ted Thompson's draft picks, but this battle figures to go all the way through the summer.
In a philosophical shift, Whitt has decided to give his cover guys more freedom to play how they want to play. While there will still be certain defensive calls that require specific coverage techniques, Whitt wants his guys to be put in position to make the most plays. For Williams, Whitt said, that's playing off. For Shields, Whitt said, it's press coverage. "We asked those guys for as much as possible to get up and press," Whitt explained. "(Williams) can press. (But) he gets the ball better when he's off. He makes more impactful plays from playing off. Sam makes more impactful plays being pressed. If you go back to 2010, most of (Williams') impact plays came from being off. This year, my whole mantra – and I told Dom (Capers) this -- we might give up a little more completions, but I'm going to allow them to do what they do. So you might see Tramon and Casey play off (more)."
"It's an opportunity to compete. When you look at how much M.D. and McMillian played last year, those are two young players that played a lot of snaps. I look for them to make that jump, I look for M.D. to make that second-year player jump. And I look for Jerron McMillian to make that second-year jump. It's going to be very competitive. Morgan has clearly established himself as the leader back there. His communication has been outstanding." – head coach Mike McCarthy, on the team's options at safety.
Next: Special teams.