The safety unit has undergone significant changes from last year resulting in some impressive young talent at the position. The problem is that much of this talent is still a bit raw and may need more time to develop.
In 2011 the Packers learned to the value of the safety position the hard way. The pass defense struggled and seemed to give up the big play on a far too consistent basis. This also happened to be the year that the Packers lost Nick Collins to a season ending neck injury which has appeared to ended Collins career as well. Coming into 2012 the Packers made some significant changes to the safety unit in order to upgrade in the short term and find better answers for the long term needs of the position. These moves included spending a fourth round pick to grab a small school product whom some considered a reach, a position change for a legendary defender from corner to safety, and the dramatic cutting of Charlie Peprah on the eve of training camp. In the end this led to mixed results. The pass defense improved and big plays decreased, but the future is still unclear who is going to be on the backside of the Packers defense next year and beyond.
Currently signed for 2013:
The only unquestioned starter of this group is Burnett. Burnett turned in a solid season in 2012, but has always seemed to come in just below expectations. The good news about Burnett is that he had an impressive streak of games while Woodson was hurt. He showed he can be counted on to be a leader in this defense during this time. The bad news is that his production really did not go up much from previous years. Is he just a reliable starter or can he be more? Next season should go a long way of answering this question.
Woodson is probably going to be a first ballot Hall of Fame player some day, but it’s painfully clear his best days are behind him. Right now signs point to Woodson looking at the real possibility of restructuring his contract or being cut. He is the second highest cap hit for 2013 and is not the second best player on the Packers right now. The problem for the Packers is that he also is the best answer the team has for safety opposite Burnett and can be a valuable member of the defense. Teams don’t get better by cutting valuable players without a replacement in mind.
The best hope for replacing Woodson at safety is second year man McMillian. McMillian flashed n the scene with some impressive early games but disappeared the rest of the season while splitting time with Jennings. McMillian has shown ability to hit hard and move to the ball, but it is probably going to take another year or two before he is ready to be the every down starter.
M.D. Jennings is an interesting case right now. He struggled early in the year, with is worst game coming in week 1 against San Francisco. Somewhere along the line though he started putting together some good performances and finally held his own against the rookie McMillian in the snap count. Jennings even had some good moments in pass coverage, with PFF listing him as having allowed the sixth lowest 1st downs & TD’s percentage for safeties in 2012. Jennings still has the potential to develop into a solid contributor on the defense or at the very least a reliable backup option at safety.
The forgotten man of the group is second year man Sean Richardson. Richardson spent most of the year on special teams duty. His season ended on injured reserve after a neck injury, but early reports indicate that he should be ready for 2013. Richardson possesses a high upside and has the ability to push for some playing time next year despite the presence of McMillian and Jennings.
Position Grade: B
The talent is there for this grade to be much higher, but most of the players are still young. In fact the only player without a decent upside is Woodson. A common trend among young players is a dramatic improvement for players between their first and second year in the NFL. If this can happens with McMillian and Richardson then the Packers may start to have the depth and talent in their safety unit that they have already in their cornerback unit. Unfortunately, most of the players here are a bit too raw to make any such claim at this juncture.
Need Grade: 6 (out of 10)
More talent at safety is not bad, but it’s not needed either. What is needed is time and patience. But if a bargain is to be found at safety early in the draft I don’t think many would complain too much about that either.