Will Packers find safety in numbers?
Charles Woodson is in Oakland, Kenny Vaccaro is in New Orleans, Eric Reid is in San Francisco, Matt Elam is in Baltimore, Jonathan Cyprien is in Jacksonville.
Meanwhile, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian are in Green Bay. And the Green Bay Packers are just fine with that.
Having released Woodson on Feb. 15 and having elected not to select a safety during the 2013 NFL Draft – Vaccaro, Reid, Elam and Cyprien were the first four off the board at a position viewed as deep by NFL general managers and scouts – the Packers appear perfectly content with letting Jennings and McMillian battle it out for the starting spot opposite Morgan Burnett.
“It’s an opportunity to compete,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this week, following the first open organized team activity practice of the offseason. “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.”
McCarthy’s certainly right about the amount of experience Jennings and McMillian gained last season, thanks in large part to the broken collarbone Woodson suffered on Oct. 21 at St. Louis, an injury that sidelined him for the next nine games. But even before Woodson went down, both Jennings and McMillian were seeing action in the team’s sub packages. With the Packers choosing to play more dime (six defensive backs) than nickel (five defensive backs) in passing situations in 2012, either Jennings or McMillian would come in at safety when Woodson would shift to the slot.
And after Woodson was injured, both Jennings and McMillian found their ways onto the field in the dime, as McMillian and fellow rookie Casey Hayward manned the slot positions while Jennings and Burnett played safety in that defensive alignment.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Jennings ended up playing 617 defensive snaps in 2012 and McMillian played 614. Jennings, who made the team as an undrafted free agent from Arkansas State in 2011, finished with 46 tackles, one interception and six pass breakups; McMillian, one of the Packers’ two fourth-round picks last year, finished his rookie season with 30 tackles, one interception and 13 pass breakups.
The Packers also have Sean Richardson, who made the team coming out of training camp as an undrafted free agent from Vanderbilt last year, but he played only 16 defensive snaps last season and underwent neck surgery on Jan. 19 and did not participate in Tuesday’s first open OTA. Richardson missed the first six weeks of last season with a hamstring injury suffered in the preseason finale, then missed the final five games because of the neck injury.
Jennings played in all 16 games and started 10 last season, while McMillian saw action in all 16 games but did not make a start.
None of the safeties the Packers showed interest in after the draft made the grade, either. The Packers agreed to terms with Illinois State safety Ben Erickson as an undrafted free agent, but the native of the Milwaukee suburb of Greendale flunked his physical at the rookie orientation camp and wasn’t signed. The two safeties the team brought in on a tryout basis for the rookie camp – Stony Brook’s Cedrick Moore and Sacramento State’s Ryan McMahon – were not signed, either.
“Right now, they want us to compete and push each other, and make each other better. If they did bring another safety in or they didn’t, you still have to compete with the guys who are here,” McMillian said after Tuesday’s practice, during which both he and Jennings saw time with the first-string defense. “I’m just trying to keep working on my craft and detailing the things I still need to get done. I think I’m a lot more prepared now. I’m getting everything down more so than I was last year and I’m playing a lot faster because I know what’s going on, so that’s helped me out a lot.”
Whoever winds up winning the job, McCarthy has high hopes for Burnett, who is entering his fourth NFL season – and a contract year.
“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,” McCarthy said. “Morgan has clearly established himself as the leader back there. His communication has been outstanding.”
Statistically, Burnett was productive last season, starting all 18 games (including playoffs) and playing every one of the Packers’ 1,259 snaps. He finished with 137 regular-season tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, one fumble recovery, two forced fumbles and 13 pass breakups.
But after his rookie season of 2010 ended after only four games because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, and he spent most of his second year playing with a club cast to protect a broken wrist, it was Burnett’s first truly healthy season. Now, he’s viewed as the old-school veteran, even though he’s only 24 years old – a dozen years younger than Woodson, who has played 206 career games to Burnett’s 36.
“I’m not Charles Woodson. I’m trying to be the best Morgan Burnett that I can be,” Burnett said after practice Tuesday. “Charles Woodson was a Hall of Fame player and I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to play alongside him, but right now I have to come in and try to be the best Morgan I can be.
“As a safety, that’s your job description: You have to be a leader on that defense. You have to be a leader in that secondary. It’s your job to get everybody lined up in the right position.”
The Packers are hoping Burnett will have a breakthrough season and approximate the level of play they got from three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, whom McCarthy admitted at the NFL Meetings the team has yet to adequately replace. If Burnett plays well, and either McMillian or Jennings can show better consistency, the position will be in good hands.
“Those guys, they got better as the year went on. They have another year under their belt, so they understand the defense,” Burnett said of McMillian and Jennings. “I feel we have the guys who are going to go out and compete. We have smart players. It’s just an honor for me to be alongside those guys and it’s going to be fun. We’re looking forward to it.”
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.