As a franchise that prides itself on its ability to draft and develop talent, the Green Bay Packers appear to have struck out at the safety position. The early retirement of Nick Collins cannot be overstated, as it has forced Morgan Burnett to be a difference maker on defense before he may have been ready to do so. The decision to let veteran leader Charles Woodson walk in free agency left the team with a potential young leader in Burnett, and a trio of questionable young players in M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian, and Sean Richardson.
Whether it was fair or not, Morgan Burnett was expected to be the next Nick Collins, a playmaker at the back end of the secondary who was to display leadership and a ball-hawk mentality in pass coverage. Many fans, including myself, expected second-year player Jerron McMillian to be the starter opposite Burnett. McMillian was coming off a decent rookie campaign and M.D. Jennings had shown no signs of being the better option.
Sean Richardson was hoping to make a return to the field after a suffering a herniated cervical disk that forced him to sit out the end of the 2012 season and landed him on the PUP list to start 2013, while unknowns Chaz Powell, David Fulton, and Chris Banjo were merely considered camp bodies.
2013 Packers Safeties
Starters: Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings
Back-ups: Chris Banjo, Sean Richardson
Released: Jerron McMillian (signed by Chiefs), Chaz Powell (signed by Giants), David Fulton.
Burnett missed the first three games of the season with a hamstring injury, and made possibly the play of the game in his first game back against the Detroit Lions when he tipped away a potential touchdown pass in the end zone. The season seemed to snowball after that, though, as Burnett finished with a team-leading 17 missed tackles. When the team signed Burnett to a lucrative extension (five years, $26 million) over the off-season, they were expecting the four-year veteran to be an anchor at the back end of the secondary. Burnett seemed to be a vocal leader on the field, but his tentative play once the ball was snapped hurt the team.
Many of us at APC, including myself, figured Jerron McMillian would beat out M.D. Jennings for the starting spot opposite Morgan Burnett. Jennings won the position battle, and was the starter by default the rest of the way as McMillian struggled mightily. Jennings lacks the size and awareness to be a starter at the NFL level, and I even question whether he should be a back-up on this team. Jennings gave up four touchdowns in the red zone, and was a complete liability in pass coverage.
McMillian displayed flashes of potential in his rookie campaign from his position in the nickel package, but seemed to regress in his second season and was ultimately released by the team late in the season.
Chris Banjo finished second on the team in special teams tackles with 10, but wasn't much of an impact at safety. He is a bit undersized at only five-foot-ten, but does deliver a lot of snap at the point of impact when tackling. He will likely get a chance to make the 53-man roster again in August.
It's amazing that Sean Richardson was even able to play this season, and other than appearing a bit stiff in his pass coverage, he might have the most potential other than Burnett. Richardson has the size (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) and physicality to be a contributor in the NFL, and he is solid in run support already, but he will have to prove his reliability in pass coverage during training camp.
Final Grade: F
This position has been a weak spot on the Packers defense since the early retirement of Nick Collins, and things only got worse in 2013. The Packers were gouged by the 49ers in Week 1, allowing Colin Kaepernick to throw for over 400 yards, and the unit didn't show much resistance once Morgan Burnett returned from injury in Week 4.
The lack of awareness by M.D. Jennings and lack of aggressiveness by Morgan Burnett often resulted in blown coverages or missed tackles. Jennings is too small to cover in space, and Burnett appears to have totally lost confidence in himself. Chris Banjo isn't afraid to hit people, but his lack of size and pass coverage skills may be a deal breaker moving forward. Sean Richardson should get another look in 2014 now that he has been granted a full bill of health.
The safety position was a big reason why the Packers defense finished 24th in passing yards allowed, 27th in passing touchdowns allowed (30), and 27th in interceptions (11) for the 2013 season. Throw in the fact that none of the team's 11 interceptions were caused by a Packers safety, and you have cause for concern heading into 2014.