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.”

QUICK READ: DEFENSIVE BACKS

 

Depth chart

 

No.

Name

Pos.

Ht.

Wt.

Age

Exp.

College

38

Tramon Williams

CB

5-11

191

30

7

Louisiana Tech

37

Sam Shields

CB

5-11

184

25

4

Miami (Fla.)

42

Morgan Burnett

S

6-1

209

23

4

Georgia Tech

43

M.D. Jennings

S

6-0

195

24

3

Arkansas State

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

29

Casey Hayward

CB

5-11

192

23

2

Vanderbilt

31

Davon House

CB

6-1

195

24

3

New Mexico State

24

Jarrett Bush

CB

6-0

200

29

8

Utah State

33

Micah Hyde

CB

6-0

197

22

R

Iowa

35

Loyce Means

CB

5-10

188

24

1

Houston

25

James Nixon

CB

6-0

186

25

1

California (Pa.)

34

Brandon Smith

CB

6-1

205

26

1

Arizona State

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

22

Jerron McMillian

S

5-11

203

24

2

Maine

28

Sean Richardson

S

6-2

216

23

2

Vanderbilt

41

Chaz Powell

S

6-0

203

25

1

Penn State

40

David Fulton

S

6-0

196

23

R

Chowan (N.C.)

 

Burning Question