Over the last two years the Packers have had a radical transformation at the safety position. It was a position not especially worried about two years ago when the Packers won the Super Bowl. A that time Nick Collins looked to be heading into the prime of his career and ready to become a star, Morgan Burnett looked promising as a rookie but needed to heal from a knee injury, and even Charlie Peprah looked solid enough in relief and as a rotational player. Then in 2011 Collins was lost, not only for the year but permanently, Burnett still struggled with injuries and coverages, and Peprah showed just how low his ceiling was as a player. If there was a problem in the secondary last year the safety play was a large part of it.
As a result of these problems the Packers made some changes this past offseason. Charles Woodson made the transition from CB full time to part time CB and part time S, lining up as a S in the base packages and CB in the nickel and dime "subpackages." The Packers also drafted Jerron McMillian out of Maine in the fourth round, causing many draftniks out there to scratch their heads…wondering why the Packers would take a little known player from a little known school so high in the draft. The Packers also moved M.D. Jennings, an UDFA, up to compete for a starting spot. Most surprising though may have been the 11th hour cut of Charlie Peprah right before the start of training camp.
This all leads to a relatively clean slate from years past at the safety position, with Burnett being the only holdover. The good news for Packer fans is that this strategy appears to have worked. The safety play has improved dramatically from last year. There is still some growth to be had from many of the young players, but the future looks bright on the back end of the Packer defense.
The best place to start breaking things down specifically is to address the move of Charles Woodson. It has probably been a bit more talk than substance…at least to the average fan. The Packers don’t often line up in their base formation and so Woodson spends much of his time in a familiar slot CB role. However the move of Woodson may have had a larger impact in ways we fans don’t notice. Woodson has now started going to move of the safety meetings and his experience and attitude may just be rubbing off on the younger safeties, Burnett and McMillan in particular.
Morgan Burnett is a player who has been coming on as of late. Earlier in the year he seemed to be struggling, with middling play and lacking the ball hawking nature he displayed early in his career in Green Bay. The real turning point for Burnett seems to be the injury to Woodson. Since that time he has stepped up his role in leadership and the physical nature of his play….even being one of the main nominees for MVP of the week the first week after Woodson’s loss. Burnett may just be one of the key reasons the Packers can survive the loss of Woodson for these six weeks and eventually when Woodson decides to hang the cleats up for good.
The real surprise of the group has been Jerron McMillian. Lately we Packer fans have been in awe of the high level of play from Casey Hayward, and rightly so, but before Hayward was busting on the scene the Packer rookie stealing the show was McMillian. McMillian had a phenomenal performance in the Chicago game and since then he has shown the ability to cover with most receivers, break up passes as needed, make a good break on the ball, and most importantly tackle in the open field. McMillian has been as strong in run defense as pass defense and has made a push for the starting S job since the beginning of the year. Currently, McMillian is splitting snaps with M.D. Jennings who has picked up his play from a bad game against the 49ers early in the year.
Overall Grade For This Position Group: B
Without Woodson the safety group are all pretty young. This means that there is plenty of energy and potential back there, but it would be wise to count on a fair share of struggles as well. With the improved play of Jennings and Burnett as well as promise of McMillian, the Packers appear to be set at safety. However, with the Packers about to face some potent passing attacks in the Lions, Giants, and Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall connection (which really is the totality of the Chicago Bears "offense") the inexperience of this unit will be tested and is sure to show from time to time.