We knew a year ago. Before the Green Bay Packers traded Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or cut Jermaine Whitehead. Before Mike Pettine moved Tramon Williams to free safety, or injuries ravaged the secondary so thoroughly that Green Bay had to sign and immediately play multiple street free agent safeties (only after they ran out of UDFAs). Before Brian Gutekunst decided the team was apparently totally set at safety, it was obvious they were definitively not.
Fans screamed about it, as did talk radio and podcast hosts (**ducks**). Even with legitimate starters available in free agency well into the summer, Gutekunst and Co. were content to ride with Clinton-Dix, Kentrell Brice, Josh Jones, and a bunch of barely warm bodies.
This is Gutekunst’s version of Aaron Jones not getting enough carries. Apparently the front office was the last group of people to realize the Packers had a problem. They can’t afford to make that mistake again.
Much like last year, there will be ample avenues toward rectifying the hole at the position.
Tramon Williams stabilized the free safety position, but didn’t provide the instinctive playmaking the Packers ultimately lack there. They simply swapped Clinton-Dix’s freelancing, poor tackling angles, and splash plays for Williams’ intelligence and stability without the playmaking.
Josh Jones earned a shot to play more often after last season, but he’s a limited player in zone coverage and through two seasons doesn’t show impact ability when he’s not blitzing. The intimidating hitter and playmaker he was on tape at North Carolina State has yet to come through in the NFL. Maybe it can, but his time is running out to prove it.
Ibraheim Campbell and Raven Greene showed some promise in brief stints last season while Eddie Pleasant’s run with the Packers was anything but pleasant. They could be back, but how much better does it really make this team?
These are half-measures for the Packers. Could they go through a season with Williams and Jones assuming the rest of the secondary in particular stays healthy? Probably. But that’s not reason enough to stand pat.
Free agency will be the first option for player acquisition, but even before getting to March, the Packers must take a look at their own roster. Tony Brown is an imposing, physical player who acquitted himself nicely at cornerback for Green Bay as an undrafted free agent, but looked too stiff at Alabama to play cornerback consistently. Some, myself included, believed he was a safety in the NFL.
Given his ability to match up with receivers in the slot, Brown would provide the type of versatility Mike Pettine prizes in safeties. Play him deep, play him in the box where he’s already shown to be a willing tackler, or play in the slot against tight ends, running backs and even receivers. Brown may not fit the profile of a traditional free or strong safety, but as an overhang defender with athleticism, tackling, and coverage ability, Pettine and Green Bay should be exploring ways to get him on the field.
Josh Jackson could be another option. Though his tackling has been poor dating back to his career at Iowa, Jackson heading to safety would mitigate some of his deep speed questions while allowing him to use his best attributes as a read-and-react coverage player with outstanding ball skills. He’s not an ideal last-line-of-defense safety with his tackling issues, but his range and playmaking could make up for that as he gets stronger and becomes a better tackler.
Any combination of those two, including both if the Packers decided to re-sign Bashaud Breeland, ought to be on the table before free agency opens. From there, this safety class presents a smorgasbord of options. There are high-priced players like Earl Thomas, Lamarcus Joyner and Landon Collins likely to hit the market. An upper-middle class option like Adrian Amos does dual duty by weakening a divisional opponent while strengthening the Packers. And some cheaper options like Tre Boston or Kenny Vaccaro (also an option last season) will be available to the Packers.
With cap space to spend, there’s no excuse not to find a starting safety in this group. They’re there. Go find them.
Making that task even more important is the lack of top-end safety talent in the draft. There’s no player worth the 12th pick for example, but there could be players later in the draft who could come in and contribute to this team. Deionte Thompson and Nasir Adderley have the talent to be true single-high safeties in the NFL with first-round pedigree. A host of Day 2 players featuring names like Juan Thornhill, Taylor Rapp, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Darnell Savage Jr., and others present reasonable opportunities for the Packers to add talent to the safety room.
Brian Gutekunst must uncover the right solution or combination of solutions to this safety problem. Ignoring it simply can’t and won’t work. With so many answers to such a simple question, Gutekunst can’t be caught unprepared for this important offseason test. Fix the position the team refused to admit was a problem last offseason, however it has to be done.