In 2011 the Green Bay Packers’ defense struggled to adequately replace Nick Collins after he was lost early in the year. Charlie Peprah came into the lineup, but never was able to quite fill in Collins’ shoes, and the Packers defense was often susceptible to the big play as a result. In the offseason it was painfully clear that the Packers needed to find an upgrade for 2012 and the team responded by drafting Jerron McMillian in the fourth round and betting on the development of M.D. Jennings. The end result of these moves were mixed, but looking at the big picture, the defense improved as a whole and seemed less vulnerable to the big play. The problem though was neither McMillian nor Jennings was able to provide the ball hawking or physical tackling abilities of Collins on a consistent basis.
So once again the Packers travel through an offseason with question marks at the safety position, but unlike last year the need does not seem quite as dire. An upgrade could be good for the safety spot, but it is not the biggest area of need for the team, and is not even the largest need on the defensive side of the ball. In fact it may be time to even question whether safety is a need that should be addressed this offseason at all. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Packers do have other areas where high impact draft picks could be better spent.
The biggest reason why the safety position could probably wait a year is due to the young guys the Packers already have in place. Jennings, McMillian, Sean Richardson, and yes even Morgan Burnett all are young and promising. Each appears to be poised to grow individually and could form a very talented unit.
M.D. Jennings was able to grow into a competent starter in 2012. He had some rough patches early in the year including a terrible game against the 49ers in week 1 and a poor choice on that fateful Fail Mary against the Seahawks, but eventually he was able to turn this around and turn into a solid cover safety by the end of the year (ranking in PFF’s Top 10 for first down and touchdown allowed percentage).
McMillian appeared to be the headlining rookie of the Packers draft class during the first few weeks in the season, but quickly fell behind as the year went on. During those first few weeks McMillian displayed some real ball skills and ability to break up the play. Even though he tapered off during the year he was still given honorable mention for PFF’s all rookie team in 2012 and just missed being named to Footballpros.com’s all rookie team as well.
Finally, Sean Richardson is a player who was able to turn some heads in training camp but not quite able to contribute much on defense during the regular season. He was able to make some solid contributions on special teams before his season ended because of injury. In many ways he is poised to make a progression in the same way that Jennings did from 2011 to 2012. If he can then he will bring an element of size and speed that McMillian and Jennings do not have.
While there is plenty of potential for the safety group it is not a sure thing that any one of these guys on the Packers roster can truly take the place of Nick Collins. There are lots of ways that this concern is vocalized. Some talk about big plays or ball hawking skills. Some talk about the aggressive play style or hits. Perhaps the most interesting phrasing I heard is from Bucky Brooks over at NFL.com, and former scout for Ted Thompson. Brooks talked about the Packers’ desire for "height, weight, size, and speed" in the secondary, and how that is missing right now at the safety spot. So for example, Burnett is 6’1" 209 lbs and Collins played at 5’11" 207 lbs. Jennings and McMillian each are around the proper height, 6’ and 5’11" respectively, but are both under weight (Jennings comes in at 195 lbs and McMillian at 203 lbs.). Richardson seems to fit the bill a bit better at 6’2" 216 lbs, but is a bit of an unknown at the moment.
Replacing a promising player like Collins is difficult. He was a three time Pro Bowler and a key playmaker for the defense. Right now the Packers seem to have some interesting prospects developing who may be able to replace him, but the question remains about how high a ceiling each one has and whether an upgrade could be useful. With the 26th pick in the draft a playmaking safety could be the right value, but with an interesting competition already brewing it may be better to look at other places in the draft.
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