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Packers 2018 Free Agents: What is Morgan Burnett’s value and role?

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While Burnett remains a top run-supporting safety, his total numbers in coverage seem to conflict with the perception of him as a versatile cover man.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Over a two-week span, we at Acme Packing Company are examining the Green Bay Packers’ roster position-by-position. Today we address the safeties.

The Packers have a pair of safeties whose contracts expire at the end of the 2017 league year, one of whom is the team’s highest-profile free agent remaining. However, that player has some numbers that tell an odd story about how he was targeted by opposing teams in the passing game.

Morgan Burnett

NFL Experience: 8 years
Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Expiring Contract: 4 years, $24.75 million
2017 Stats: 12 games played, 12 starts; 68 total tackles, 48 solo, one forced fumble, 3 passes defended; 729 defensive snaps (69% of team total), 24 special teams snaps (5.7%)

First and foremost, Burnett’s versatility must be acknowledged. He played a bit of everything in 2017, from his traditional box safety position to Nitro inside linebacker to slot cornerback and even a few snaps at boundary corner. That ability to play all over was essential for the defense, allowing other players to be worked into different roles.

However, the Packers safety group seemed to struggle with Burnett asked to wear so many hats, particularly as Kentrell Brice failed to pick up the slack before his injury.

Burnett remains a very solid run stopper and tackler, however, and those abilities should continue to make him a desirable target on the free agent market. PFF credited him with just two missed tackles all year, giving him the best combined tackling efficiency of any free agent safety.

The problem is that he did struggle in coverage much of the season, suggesting perhaps that his usage in the slot and at corner was indeed an emergency plan for a Packers team that continued to have injury issues at the position. First, looking at just his slot performance, Burnett allowed the fewest targets per coverage snap of any qualifying free agent. That’s good. When he was targeted, though, opposing quarterbacks had great success, posting a 133.7 passer rating (14 receptions on 19 targets for 160 yards and two touchdowns). (Stats from Pro Football Focus.) What does that tell us about his slot ability? It’s actually very tough to make a conclusion on numbers alone.

Oddly, his coverage numbers from the safety position are particularly poor, especially when compared to his fellow safeties. Granted, this does not account for the fact that he played in the slot frequently, but in overall coverage terms he finished third-worst among free agent safeties in yards, targets, and receptions allowed (all on a per-coverage snap basis). One would think those numbers would likely be inflated somewhat due to his heavy usage in the slot, but his totals in those categories are almost equivalent to his slot numbers. Put another way, he was about as effective in coverage at safety, when he was more likely to line up against tight ends and running backs, than he was covering slot receivers — an odd result to be sure. Overall, he allowed a 127.3 passer rating and he also failed to record a single interception while setting a new career-low in pass breakups.

If Burnett can get back to being more of a box safety and avoid having as many coverage responsibilities in the slot, he will likely be better-suited to live up to a large contract. Mike Pettine may recognize this, and if that is the case a deal around $8 million per year or so makes sense.

However, Burnett’s coverage skills are not elite, which would seem to keep his price well outside the $10 million per year mark that has been theorized by Spotrac. If his market is indeed lower than that, the Packers have a shot to retain him and provide Pettine with a player who is still talented but who needs to be put in the right place.

Jermaine Whitehead

NFL Experience: 1 year
Status: Exclusive-Rights Free Agent
Expiring Contract: One year, $465,000
2017 Stats: 10 games played; 5 total tackles, 3 solo, one pass defended, one rush for 7 yards (fake punt); 122 defensive snaps (11.6%), 190 special teams snaps (44.8%)

Although Whitehead was with the Packers organization in 2016, he spent most of that year on the practice squad before suiting up for just two games at the end of the season. That does not count as a full accrued season, so 2017 saw him technically remain a first-year player.

Even though he was active for only ten games, Whitehead saw more special teams snaps than any Packers defensive back not named Marwin Evans and he ranked seventh overall on the team in that area. He also had a memorable fake punt against the Cleveland Browns that saw him pick up a first down.

Whitehead earned more and more playing time on defense as the season went along, too, passing up Evans on the depth chart as the fourth safety behind Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Burnett, and Josh Jones. Expect him to get an exclusive-rights tender and to compete with Evans and some third-day draft picks or undrafted rookies for a roster spot.