No matter what the Green Bay Packers wind up doing at safety – drafting Calvin Pryor or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at No. 21, moving Micah Hyde, signing a veteran unrestricted free agent, keeping the status quo with M.D. Jennings, whatever – Charles Woodson knows the kind of player they need in the role.
And having played seven seasons in Green Bay, including three with lead safety Morgan Burnett, Woodson knows this much: Whether it’s the light finally going on for Burnett, or bringing in a running mate for him, his old team’s defense will succeed or fail based on how the two guys in the back end.
“You need guys who can play football. That’s the bottom line,” Woodson – a free agent himself when the league year opens on March 11 – said during an appearance on Green & Gold Today on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com last week. “Whether it’s a young guy or an older guy, you need somebody back there that can make plays for you – whether it’s interceptions, fumbles, whatever.
“And of course understanding the defense is going to be the most crucial part of it because there can be a lot of moving parts to that particular defense. So you definitely need to have someone who knows that and is smart enough to get it done once they’re on the field, once things start moving around out there.”
The Packers coaching staff believes Burnett is smart enough to get it done. But there’s no denying that the team’s safeties didn’t make enough plays: The Packers were the only team in the 32-team NFL whose safeties failed to record a single interception last season. Not only that, but the five safeties who saw action from scrimmage – Burnett, Jennings, Jerron McMillian, Chris Banjo and Sean Richardson – failed to force a single fumble. Burnett did recover three fumbles (including one for a touchdown) and Jennings added another, but in terms of turnover-causing plays, the safeties came up empty.
During the recent NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Packers coach Mike McCarthy had some pointed criticism for Burnett, defending him that he wasn’t a “bust” but making his shortcomings clear.
“I don’t think it’s, ‘Oh my god, he’s a bust.’ It’s nothing like that,” McCarthy said. “He needs to be more assertive in play-making opportunities. He did not have a good year in that particular area.
“Safeties – what safeties do they talk about? The ones that make the big hit, or the ones that make interceptions. And until he starts doing that, they’re not going to talk about him that way. They don’t talk about 100-tackle safeties anymore.”
At another point in the half-hour interview, McCarthy said, “We need more production next to Morgan, which I think would definitely help him.”
And that’s where the Packers’ decisions lie. Having signed Burnett to a four-year, $24.75 million extension last summer, they need to figure out how he can be more productive. And while McCarthy said Burnett will be “coached to make more impact plays,” pairing him with a more productive running mate is essential.
Jennings, who started all 17 games including the NFC Wild Card Playoff loss to San Francisco, is set to be a restricted free agent, and it’s unclear whether the Packers will even place the low tender of $1.4 million on the former undrafted free agent from Arkansas State. McMillian was released during the season, Banjo re-signed as an exclusive rights free agent and Richardson, who showed promise as an undrafted rookie from Vanderbilt in 2012, returned to the field after cervical spine single fusion surgery but still must prove himself capable. McCarthy also said at the Combine that Hyde will begin learning the safety position, although he figures to still play inside in the slot in the nickel and dime defenses.
Among top safeties in the May 8-10 NFL Draft are Louisville’s Pryor and Alabama’s Clinton-Dix – the only two who appear to be first-round shoo-ins – along with Washington State’s Deone Bucannon, Northn Illinois’ Jimmie Ward, Florida state’s Lamarcus Joyner and USC’s Dion Bailey.
The 5-foot-11, 207-pound Pryor, a physical run defender who’s also shown very good range when in coverage, said on the final day of media interviews that he had a formal interview scheduled with the Packers that night.
“To play the game of football, you have to be tough. And, it’s a thinking game,” Pryor said. “I feel like I’m a very versatile player. I can drop in the middle of the field and cover a lot of range and just break on the ball. I can play strong safety, free safety, I can come up and hit, I feel I can cover.”
The 6-1, 208-pound Clinton-Dix, meanwhile, believes he’s the most pro-ready safety in the draft because of Alabama coach Nick Saban’s defense.
“There's a lot of good prospects out there, but I think what separates me from the rest of them is the system I played in,” he said. “Coach Saban's system is very hard. It took me my entire freshman year to learn that system. And I think that's what separates me,” Clinton-Dix said. “I can play both deep field and inside the box. At the next level you've got to know both. You've got to be able to play in the box and play deep.”
But before the draft, the Packers will carry more than $34 million in salary-cap space into free agency, which kicks off March 11. (Players’ agents can begin talking to other teams starting on Saturday.) Although Burnett played largely as the strong safety last season, safeties coach Darren Perry has always said that the two safeties must be interchangeable and that he’d like to see Burnett freed up to play more in the back end. That means the Packers could add a strong or free safety in free agency is general manager Ted Thompson decides to break precedent and dive into the free-agent pool.
Asked how important the safety position is in the Packers’ defense, Thompson replied, “Wvery position is vital. The 11 guys you have on the field, plus the five or six at least sub-package guys that you play just as much as the starters, those are vital positions, every one of them are. So the safeties are no different.”
Should the Packers want to sign a veteran, the top free-agent options are Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, New Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins, Miami’s Chris Clemons, and Kansas City’s Kendrick Lewis at free safety and Cleveland’s T.J. Ward, San Francisco’s Donte Whitner, Indianapolis’ Antoine Bethea, Detroit’s Louis Delmas, Carolina’s Mike Mitchell, Baltimore’s James Ihedigbo and Tennessee’s Bernard Pollard at strong safety.
In the end, though, it’ll still come down to Burnett, who was supposed to be the latest in the Packers’ lineage of Pro Bowl safeties – LeRoy Butler, Darren Sharper, Nick Collins – but has yet to raise his level of play to that stratosphere through four seasons.
“Morgan, I talked to him earlier in the year, and for him, it’s just about focus,” Woodson said. “He’s a young player. People can say what they want to about you in the media or coaches or whatever, but you have to block all of that stuff out and you’ve got to focus on what makes you better, what makes you tick.
“As far as the offseason’s concerned, you’ve got to continue to work at your craft. Whatever you feel like the previous season you were deficient in, that’s what you have to concentrate on to make yourself better for the season coming up. The game is always got to be on your mind, you’ve got to always be thinking about it, you’ve got to always be working on something and just block everybody out. Because in Morgan’s case, he’s got a long career ahead of him – hopefully – and it’s going to be up to him. It’s not up to anybody else.”
Here are the safeties, in alphabetical order, who are either on the street already or will become unrestricted free agents when the new league year opens on March 11, according to the NFL: