Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2017 season. Today, we examine the safeties.
Many areas of the Green Bay Packers’ roster underperformed in 2017. None, however, did so by a greater margin than the safety position, which featured an apparent rising star fresh off his first Pro Bowl appearance, one of the most veteran players on the entire roster, a talented early draft pick, and promising second-year contributors. While injuries and deficiencies elsewhere on the roster contributed to the group’s collapse, the lion’s share of the fault falls on the safeties themselves.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
2017 stats: 79 total tackles, two tackles for loss, six pass breakups, three interceptions
In 2017, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should have cemented his rise to stardom and secured a lucrative long-term deal to remain the Packers’ centerfielder for the foreseeable future. Instead, he delivered the worst year of his career, raising doubt as to his future in Green Bay after this upcoming season.
More than any full-time starter for the Packers, Clinton-Dix regularly moved out of position, allowing easy receptions and ruining numerous promising defensive series. While such issues cropped up in the past, Clinton-Dix didn’t make up for them with his customary game-changing plays. It left the Green Bay defense vulnerable down the middle, and with myriad injuries leaving that area already deficient, the Packers appeared helpless most of the season.
Clinton-Dix will have a chance to redeem himself under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in 2018 and reclaim his value, but if the veteran safety fails to do so, the Packers will have little choice but to hunt for a replacement next offseason.
2017 stats: 68 total tackles, five tackles for loss, three pass breakups, one forced fumble
Morgan Burnett’s value never seemed as obvious as during the four games he missed in 2017. Playing a number of roles including off-ball linebacker and slot cornerback, Burnett proved to be the most versatile of the Packers’ defensive backs. When he left the lineup, a group of underwhelming, inexperienced youngsters came on to replace him. The results surprised no one, with Green Bay showing little fight in the secondary for most of the season.
Burnett becomes an unrestricted free agent next month, and the Packers might find a more competitive market for his services given the plethora of cap space across the league. Given Burnett’s age (29 as of January) and his slowly diminishing athleticism, the front office might deem him too risky to justify the expense.
2017 stats: 71 total tackles, three tackles for loss, 2 sacks, five pass breakups, one interception
Considered the prize of the Packers’ rookie class during training camp and the preseason, Jones looked capable of solving the longstanding pass coverage issues with tight ends and receivers working the middle of the field. While Jones, a tremendous athlete in nearly every metric, flashed the ability to close passing windows as an off-ball linebacker, he also produced more than his fair share of rookie mistakes. Jones missed tackles and frequently moved out of position, allowing big receptions down the seams.
Still, outside of cornerback Kevin King, who concluded 2017 with badly needed shoulder surgery, no Packers rookie looks like a stronger Year 2 leap candidate. Jones will either return to linebacker duty or see more work as a traditional safety should Burnett depart in free agency.
2017 stats: 23 total tackles, three pass breakups, one interception
Injuries limited the once-promising Kentrell Brice to just six games in 2017, though he did little during those outings to suggest a big season would have otherwise materialized. Brice has the range and aggressiveness to develop into a capable safety, but he doesn’t always display the instincts necessary to thrive at the position. Brice has one year remaining on his rookie contract and, like Jones, could see an uptick in usage if Burnett leaves.
2017 stats: 24 total tackles, one forced fumble
Second-year man Marwin Evans possesses arguably the best athleticism of any safety in Green Bay. You couldn’t always tell by his play, however. Evans appeared tentative in coverage, a role he played only sparingly as a rookie but found himself in more often as a result of injuries. Evans remains viable on special teams and could become a field-tilter on coverage units in his third season, but he might never become more than an emergency option on defense.
2017 stats: 11 total tackles, one pass breakup
As with his rookie year, Whitehead saw only limited action midway through the season when injuries opened up some opportunities. Whitehead has the body of a cornerback and the approach of a safety, making him an interesting prospect moving forward. Perhaps under Pettine, he could see more time as a corner, an area he became increasingly comfortable in as the season progressed.
Overall grade: D-
The disappointing seasons for Clinton-Dix and Jones along with the injury woes overshadow everything else for the safeties. The potential departure of Burnett, the group’s only plus contributor in 2017, makes a bad year look even worse. Until further notice, the position looks like a major liability.