This morning I was watching a clip from NFL Networks 32 in 32 and they posted a graphic that caught my eye. It focused on the teams with the most returning starters from last year. The 49ers had the most with 19 and then the Lions had the next most with 18. Well, there were a bunch of teams with 18 including the Packers. The moral I took out of this random nugget of information was that there aren't many starting positions open for the Packers this year. Now this wasn't new information, but just a new way of expressing it. The reality is the same, while there may be more competition this year the starting cast is going to look generally the same.
One of those few starting roles that is up for grabs is the starting safety position. Right now there are three contenders for this position: Jerron McMillian, Charlie Peprah, and M.D. Jennings. There is also the possibility that none of these guys get that position and Charles Woodson makes the transition to safety that many of us have been expected for the last couple years, but more on that later.
After the jump let's breakdown how each of these contenders look going into camp.
Last year's starter and current front runner: Charlie Peprah.
Biggest reason why he will win: Experience. Peprah is the guy with the most playing time and should need the least amount of transition time to settle into the starter's role. He held down the position last year and for long stretches of 2010 and during that time he showed that his capable of doing the job.
Biggest reason why he won't win: Lack of upside. While he is the most experienced and has shown that he can get the job, but can he do the job? Really the question is whether he can excel at the job and the answer is pretty much no. Charlie Peprah is a fine fill in and may be good enough to muddle through a season, but he's not going to light up the NFL, nor be a playmaker. Really he would just keep the seat warm until a real franchise safety can take the job from him.
The OTA sensation: M.D. Jennings.
Biggest reason why he will win: High upside. When faux football comes in the spring there is always that guy who lights it up and gets people excited. These guys are great athletes and look great in shorts just running around. Right now that's Jennings. He's making plays and running around and getting in the mix of things. He gives the Packers that hope of another ball hawking safety like Nick Collins was before the injury. He also showed toughness last year putting that speed and tenacity on special teams.
Biggest reason why he will not win: Too raw. Funny thing about those guys who look good in shorts...so often they disappear when the pads come on. Right now it's a pretty simplistic defense that is being run and simple offenses. People are trying to get on the right page more then compete for spots, but in training camp that will change quickly. Jennings didn't make a push last for playing time despite how bleak things looked in the secondary and he may still be too raw to really make the push for playing time this year.
The young gun: Jerron McMilliian.
Biggest reason why he will win: Draft status. This may sound odd considering he was a fourth round pick, but stick with me. Generally safeties are drafted a bit lower than other positions with good safeties found in rounds 2-4. When the Packers drafted McMillian it was clear that he was selected to fill the shoes of Collins, or at the very least help with the tackling woes of last year (something Peprah was especially notorious for).
Biggest reason why he will not win: Not ready for primetime. There weren't many questions about the Packers draft this past year, but McMillian was definitely one of them. He came from a small program in Maine and it's unknown how he will match up against some of the talent of the NFL. With players coming from bigger conferences (most notably the SEC) those players are generally going up against some NFL talent on a weekly basis, not so much with these small school projects. It may be nothing, it may be a matter of time, or it may be a fatal flaw in this pick, but we won't know until the pads come on and some preseason games are played.
The final twist...the Corner Okie.
All this may be for naught depending on how the defense is configured this year. Woodson may make the switch to safety. If he does I would be shocked if he can't beat out these three guys. The Packers may not even make the switch technically and still effectively limit these players to contributing in subpackages only if they switch to the Corner Okie as their base defense.
The Corner Okie is basically a line up where the Packers keep one safety on the field (presumably Morgan Burnett) and then three corners in the base. In this case Woodson would play his normal slot corner / strong safety role. This type of switch wouldn't be too surprising with the rise of the hybrid TE, the skills of Woodson, and the depth of talent at corner right now. If the switch happens then the most these three competitors would get on the field would be in nickel packages and obvious passing downs. Still a healthy percentage of the defense, but not technically a "starter" per se.