The Green Bay Packers escaped training camp and the preseason with minimal injury concerns. The team has just one player on the reserve/Physically Unable to Perform list, running back Kylin Hill, thanks to the returns of David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, Robert Tonyan, and Mason Crosby from their various injuries in August.
The Packers also held out their key players during preseason games while avoiding any major injuries to starters in practices. However, one position in particular was the exception to the team’s general good health, as the team’s safety group was devastated throughout the last month.
Due in large part to those injuries, the cupboard of capable defensive players behind starters Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage appears nearly bare. Consider the following players who all missed significant time with injuries during camp:
- Vernon Scott
- Shawn Davis
- Innis Gaines
- Tariq Carpenter
- Dallin Leavitt
That’s saying nothing of Savage, who himself missed a few weeks with a hamstring injury that he suffered in the first preseason game. Thankfully he has returned to practice and both he and Amos played all 17 games a year ago, but an injury to either one this fall could be devastating.
Scott and Davis, the two players who took reps as the team’s third safety throughout the spring and summer, are gone. Both players suffered untimely injuries, with Scott suffering a likely season-ending shoulder injury in the second preseason game before Davis was hurt in the finale. Gaines returned from injury before that finale, but was hurt once again on a special teams rep before he could get into the game on defense.
As for Carpenter and Leavitt, both appear to be healthy enough now, as they are participating in practice. Those two players plus newcomer Rudy Ford make up the backup group on the 53-man roster, while former USFL standout Micah Abernathy signed back on the practice squad on Friday after being waived to make room for Ford two days earlier.
That depth chart provides plenty of reason for concern, particularly if one of the starters misses time. Both Carpenter and Leavitt were responsible for blown coverages leading to explosive touchdowns in the preseason, Leavitt against the 49ers in the opener and Carpenter in the finale against the Chiefs. At this point, neither one inspires any confidence for their play at safety; Leavitt is on the roster for the special teams abilities he has demonstrated with the Raiders, while Carpenter’s draft status seems to be the only reason he stuck over Abernathy.
Carpenter’s draft workout was impressive in most areas, but his agility times were abysmal for a player asked to cover in space. Perhaps even worse is the fact that it was a mental error, not a physical one, that led to him getting burned for a touchdown, which won’t help instill faith in his ability to contribute on defense as a rookie.
Abernathy, of course, made the initial 53 but was waived in favor for Ford, who was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars on Tuesday. Ford is an interesting player, but he is yet another safety who has made his name for his play on special teams rather than as a defensive back.
Through his first four NFL seasons, two each with Arizona and Philadelphia, Ford had been on the field for 125 defensive snaps against 806 special teams plays. Last season in Jacksonville, however, he was much more active on defense. Although he still played nearly 180 special teams snaps, Ford started four games and was on the field for 423 snaps on defense. According to Pro Football Focus, his defensive alignment was split about 2-to-1 between the slot (61%) and the box (32%), with almost no time spent as a deep safety.
PFF grades were middling on Ford in 2021. He earned a 59.5 coverage grade as a slot defender and a 66.7 in the box. The snap breakdown, however, informs us of his likely role as a defensive back moving forward: an emergency slot/box safety only. This usage suggests that he’s not a great candidate to fill in as a full-time player, leaving the Packers still in search of a viable backup.
Now that Abernathy has indeed returned to the Packers on the practice squad, that at least gives the Packers a backup option who had a notable highlight in a game this August rather than a lowlight. His interception before halftime in the Saints game was an impressive, athletic play from the deep half, one that came after an excellent break on the football. It’s the kind of play that you hope to see from a young player at the position and was arguably the best play that a Packers safety made all preseason.
Abernathy being on the practice squad allows the Packers to elevate him for a few games as a spot starter, though they would need to navigate in-game injuries if he were not on the gameday roster when an injury occurred. In the latter case, the Packers may actually turn to a different position group if Amos or Savage were to miss time. Cornerback Rasul Douglas took some snaps in Savage’s position late in training camp, which suggests that he is a serious candidate to back up the position.
Using Douglas at safety after a theoretical injury to Savage has its own drawbacks, however, namely the knock-on effects at the cornerback position. If Douglas moves out of the slot and into the back end, that would promote either Shemar Jean-Charles or Keisean Nixon from dime duty to nearly full-time snaps as a nickel corner.
None of these scenarios are ideal in the event of an injury to Amos or Savage. Having a plug-and-play backup would be the preferred situation, but at this point, that player does not appear to be on the roster after Scott’s and Davis’ injuries landed them on waivers and injured reserve, respectively. The closest thing to a drop-in substitute would be Abernathy, and his status on the practice squad complicates his availability to some extent.
Unfortunately, this situation is largely a function of those injuries. In theory, the Packers could have done something to bolster the team’s safety depth in the offseason to avoid this type of situation, either by using a higher draft pick at the position than the 7th used to select Carpenter or investing in a budget-level veteran free agent, but there’s no certainty that a move would have worked out.
For now, the Packers need to hope against hope that Amos and Savage remain healthy. If one of them cannot do so, it could get very ugly very quickly for the back end of the Packers’ defense.