Darren Perry didn’t sound like he was trying to send a message, and he didn’t sound like he was delivering some coaching cliché about how everyone has to earn their job.
No, the Green Bay Packers straight-shooting safeties coach simply seemed to be telling the truth.
And that truth, in his mind: He has three young safeties – emerging Micah Hyde, first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and reborn Sean Richardson – who have each shown promise and made plays in practice.
And as a result, Perry would not guarantee that incumbent starter Morgan Burnett is assured of his position.
Burnett, who missed one practice earlier in camp with a mild ankle sprain, won’t travel to Saturday night’s preseason opener at Tennessee because of a strained oblique muscle suffered in practice Monday night.
Asked Thursday afternoon if it was possible that Hyde, who has worked with the No. 1 defense since the start of the offseason program, and Clinton-Dix, who has gotten most of the snaps with the starters with Burnett sidelined, might be the team’s best two safeties, Perry replied, “Anything’s possible.”
Asked if that is a realistic possibility, he said, “I don’t think you can answer that question until you see these guys play. These guys haven’t played in one game (at safety). Micah’s playing a new position, Ha is coming straight out of college. We know what the expectations are, but again, this is the NFL and you should never underestimate this league and the challenges that are out there if you’re not ready to play.
“Nothing is etched in stone. We’ve played around with some combinations out there, and they’ll determine it by how they play.”
Burnett has been a starter since entering the league as a third-round pick in 2010, although his rookie season ended after four games because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Last season, after signing a four-year, $24.75 million extension, he failed to record an interception and has not yet developed into the Pro Bowl-caliber safety that Perry and the coaching staff had hoped. He has only six career interceptions in 49 regular-season games – after an INT-free 2013, he hasn’t had an interception since registering two against Minnesota on Dec. 2, 2012 – and has broken up 37 career passes.
So far in camp, Hyde hasn’t shown any sign of ceding his spot with the No. 1 unit – he had a fantastic leaping one-handed interception in the end zone on Wednesday in practice – and Clinton-Dix appears to be getting more and more comfortable with the pro game. He’s shown a willingness to hit and play up in the box in practice, and Perry likes his ball skills, too.
And then there is Richardson. Although Packers coach Mike McCarthy began his discussion of the safety position by saying “I look at Morgan Burnett as a starter” and went on to point out that Hyde is transitioning to a new position and Clinton-Dix is a rookie, it was Richardson who drew a rare rave review from the head coach.
“I tell you what, Sean Richardson’s had a hell of a training camp,” McCarthy said emphatically. “I mean, I’ve been impressed with him both defensively and special teams.”
Richardson, who suffered a career-threatening neck injury as a rookie in 2012, returned to action last year after starting the season on the physically unable to perform list. He has had at least two interceptions in practice early in camp and has also been the most physical safety of the bunch.
Told of McCarthy’s praise, he downplayed it.
“I’m just trying to stay focused, continue to get better,” said Richardson, who made the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Vanderbilt in 2012. “It’s good that the coach is saying positive things, but I’m a team player. I’m here to do whatever they ask me to do. Everything else happens, but I’m excited and blessed to be back out here. I’m happy to be amongst my teammates playing and not sitting on the sidelines watching because last year at this time, I felt awful having to sit on the sideline and watch players going through camp. So I’m just excited.”
It would seem to be a longshot that Burnett, when healthy, would not be one of the team’s two starters. His deal, which was technically a five-year, $26.073 million deal because it added four years onto the final year of his rookie contract, contained a whopping $8.25 million in guaranteed money.
“Nicks and bruises are going to come along with the game,” Burnett said Thursday. “It’s just all about getting the proper treatment and get back out there.”
Until then, Hyde, Clinton-Dix and Richardson will have their chances to earn a starting spot.
“Really, these four preseason games really, they’ll determine a lot of that,” Perry said. “Again, we’ve got some combinations that we’re looking at, but nothing is etched in stone. We want to make sure we give all those guys an opportunity to compete, because we feel like we’ve got some great competition back there. And I think all those guys realize that. And playing these next four games is going to be crucial in terms of those guys establishing their roles.
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.