Both the cause and the effect of Josh Jones demanding a trade leads directly to the moment Oren Burks comes to as OTAs open. The fact that the Green Bay Packers found roles for multiple UDFAs over the former second-round safety led, at least in part, to Brian Gutekunst tabbing Burks by trading up in the third round of the 2018 draft.
In a perfect world, Mike Pettine would find a way to use a pair of uber athletes together, as malleable chess pieces who could cover, defend the run, and attack downhill. To this point, neither Burks nor Jones have demonstrated the ability to do these things consistently. Jones’ struggles, and the team’s seeming distrust of him to be where he needs to be, necessitates Burks metaphoric arrival in Year 2.
With or without Jones on the roster, this was always going to be true. If and when the Packers part ways with their discontented safety, Burks will have to pick up the slack.
Trying to project what that looks like shouldn’t be particularly difficult either, though some of the personnel deployment Pettine used last season could make the frequency with which certain personnel groupings will be used murky at best. Did he like to go to that big nickel safety look because he didn’t trust Antonio Morrison to do more than attack downhill, or because he liked Jermaine Whitehead so much? Considering all it took was one bonehead play from Whitehead to get the heave-ho, the answer should be obvious: this is the way he wants to play.
His prioritizing of passing defense underscores the formula. Keep smaller lineups on the field to cover and live with whatever the team gives up on the ground. And when he had his preferred starters in the secondary last year, that formula proved effective. With a revamped back end, Pettine should be emboldened to go with this strategy even more.
Given Burks’ alacrity in pass coverage, the one place he truly shined in college and in the Packers’ preseason last year, he may be able to allow Pettine to both play bigger and cover well. This is the key to a defense like the Seahawks, where Pettine studied as a consultant the year before joining Mike McCarthy’s staff in 2018. When a team has Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, who can cover like safeties, the defense can play bigger and jam up the ground attack while not giving up anything in coverage.
This was the wisdom behind the Jones selection, as well as the Burks selection. Gutekunst must hope the latter works out much better than the former.
Last season, non-Blake Martinez linebackers played just under 40% of snaps, with Jermaine Whitehead getting nearly 21% of the full season snaps, despite only playing about half the season with the Packers. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that if Burks can show the kind of cover ability he did in preseason during the regular season, he’s looking at playing well over 60% of snaps.
That creates the kind of flexibility and interchangeability that Pettine prizes. Right now, this is how the Packers’ base defense will look. Just how much Pettine plays this group will depend on how much he trusts Burks.
In the 2019 version of base, Burks replaces Morrison next to Martinez. In big nickel situations a year ago, Pettine would often replace Morrison with a safety like Whitehead. That was a spot Jones could have won, but now appears destined for Burks or a dark horse candidate like Raven Greene or even Natrell Jamerson.
More speed and playmaking at safety could embolden Pettine to roll with Burks as well, a factor we can’t account for given how poorly the safeties played last year. If the second-year Vanderbilt linebacker proves his mettle in coverage, Green Bay could look to more traditional nickel formations, which would allow for more disguising of blitzes and coverages while staying relatively big.
Adding outside linebackers with size, strength, and flexibility can amplify that kind of advantage. This formation is one the Packers played regularly last season, taking the defensive linemen off the field and replacing him with a nickel cornerback. Pettine liked to used Whitehead or Jones in that box de facto linebacker spot, making them even smaller. That’s now going to be Burks’ job to lose.
For a Mike Pettine defense, this would be awfully traditional in look, but it would certainly give him considerable flexibility with blitz looks and run fits.
All of this hinges on the development of Burks.
“We’ve been working with him on his sight lines, where to put his eyes, and to move more efficiently in the core,” explained inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti on Wednesday. “He’s done a very good job with trying to be efficient with his feet, efficient with his angles, and putting his eyes in a good spot.”
This type of developmental work makes sense given Burks’ relative lack of experience as a linebacker. It also follows with where Burks does seem to thrive: go cover that guy. When he’s not having to read and react from the box, a position he’s still learning to play, he can be effective. Sight lines change farther away from the quarterback, even if some of the run/pass keys stay the same at times.
We have reason to believe Burks can already do some of the things he’ll need to do in coverage to make these bigger lineups work. But if he’s not an asset in the run game, even with a subverted priority level from Pettine, then the team might as well put a defensive back on the field. That’s where Jones would have come in, but likely won’t given the current contemptuous situation. Green Bay would prefer Burks earn that job, rather than force another DB onto the field.
Jones’ impending departure doesn’t change much in terms of opportunity for Burks considering how little Jones was playing last year before injuries hit the secondary. But trading or releasing him would clear the decks for Burks to show what he can do. It also elevates the pressure on him to perform. The Packers can’t keep missing on top picks and another flop with Burks would likely prove costly.
Solidifying the defense around the position, with major acquisitions at safety and outside linebacker, set up Burks to succeed. Moving Jones kicks the doors to opportunity wide open for the 24-year-old Burks. It’ll be up to him to walk through them.