Examining Former Packers' Safeties: Will Morgan Burnett Have a Breakout Season?

Jamie Squire

We examine the numbers from several former Packer safeties to see if we can project the career of the Packers' starting free safety.

In the past 20-plus years, the Green Bay Packers have had a great run at the safety position. Since LeRoy Butler's emergence in the early 1990s, there has been at least one Pro Bowl-caliber safety on the roster at almost all times. As the prime of Butler's career started to taper off, Darren Sharper came to Green Bay. The year that Sharper departed for the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers drafted Nick Collins. The question for the current Packers team is whether or not Morgan Burnett can truly develop into one of the elite safeties in the NFL as he enters his fourth season.

If the other three safeties' career trajectories are any indication, Burnett may be in for a breakout performance this year.

Brian Carriveau of Cheesehead TV (among other publications) spurred this discussion in my brain by mentioning on Twitter that Butler and Collins broke out in their fourth years. That got me to thinking, what kind of a "breakout" did they really have? I decided to take a statistical look at each player's first through third years in comparison to their fourth season to get a feel for what sort of breakout that truly represented. Then I looked at the fourth through sixth seasons to get an idea of the consistency that the players each brought in the prime of their careers.

Nick Collins

Rookie year: 2005

Year(s) Games Starts Interceptions Forced Fumbles Fumble Recoveries TDs Total Tackles
1-3 (average) 15 15 1.3 1.3 0 0.3 72
4 (2008 season) 16 16 7 1 0 3 70
4-6 (average) 16 16 5.7 0.3 1.3 1.3 60
1-3 (total) 45 45 4 4 0 1 214
4-6 (total) 48 48 17 1 4 4 180

Collins had one of the most memorable years for a Packers safety ever in 2008, with seven picks and three of those returned for scores. Both of those stats led the league, as did his interception return yardage (295). He continued to have a great nose for the ball in his next two seasons as well, and these stats do not count the game-changing pick-six he recorded in Super Bowl XLV. Collins made the Pro Bowl in 2008, '09, and '10.

Darren Sharper

Rookie year: 1997

Year(s) Games Starts Interceptions Forced Fumbles Fumble Recoveries TDs Total Tackles
1-3 (average) 15 11 1.7 0.3 0.7 1 66
4 (2000) 16 16 9 0 0 0 92
4-6 (average) 15 15 7.3 0.3 0.3 0.3 85
1-3 (total) 46 32 5 1 2 3 199
4-6 (total) 45 45 22 1 1 1 255

Sharper's touchdowns dropped a bit in the second three-year span of his career, but return scores tend to be fluky anyway; his interception total blossomed and his tackles became more consistent (albeit with better playing time). That nine-pick season in his fourth year matched his career high (which he would achieve twice more) and led the NFL. Sharper made the Pro Bowl in his fourth and sixth years, and was a first-team All-Pro safety as well in 2000.

LeRoy Butler

Rookie Year: 1990

Year(s) Games Starts Interceptions Forced Fumbles Fumble Recoveries TDs Total Tackles
1-3 (average) 16 10 2.3 1 0.7 0 52
4 (1993) 16 16 6 2 1 1 90
4-6 (average) 15 15 4.7 1.3 0.3 0.3 85
1-3 (total) 47 31 7 3 2 0 156
4-6 (total) 45 45 14 4 1 1 255
7-9 (average) 48 48 13 5 5 2 279

Butler's career showed another huge uptick in his fourth season, as he was an All-Pro and a turnover machine. The fascinating part about Butler was that his next three-year span (7th-9th seasons) was yet another improvement - he was an All-Pro each of those three seasons, and with those turnover numbers combined with 13.5 sacks, it's easy to see why.

Morgan Burnett

Now we come to the subject of this whole discussion. Below we have Burnett's totals from his first three years compared to each of the other three safeties. Keep in mind that Burnett missed 12 games in his rookie year with a torn ACL, while Sharper and Butler did not start their rookie years.

Player Games Starts Interceptions Fumbles Forced Fumble Recoveries TDs Total Tackles
Burnett 36 36 6 4 3 0 245
Collins 45 45 4 4 0 1 214
Sharper 46 32 5 1 2 3 199
Butler 47 31 7 3 2 0 156

Burnett's stats for his first three years actually compare very positively to the other three safeties'. He did not start as many games as Collins, but he has more interceptions, total turnover plays, and tackles. He started more games than Sharper, but the "old" 42 was a critical backup who played a lot on defense his rookie season. That said, Burnett has exceeded his totals in every category except touchdowns. Butler's turnover totals are close to Burnett's but Morgan is a more active tackler at this point in his career.

Obviously, comparing the career trajectories of these different players is no guarantee that Burnett will have a breakout season in 2013. However, the fact that he compares so positively over his first three years to these other All-Pro caliber safeties certainly is a positive sign for him and should give all Packers fans hope that he will indeed be set up for success this season.

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