It’s not often that teams sign a 17-game starter in May, but that’s the exact position the Green Bay Packers have found themselves in with the addition of former Houston Texans safety Jonathan Owens. Maybe best known as the new husband of the four-time Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone Biles, Owens — who entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Missouri Western State — earned a start in every game last season after playing in just 14 total games over his four seasons in the league.
So what are the Packers getting in their new safety? We took a look at three 2022 Texans games to try to answer that question. The games chosen were against the Denver Broncos (Week 2), Chicago Bears (Week 3) and Cleveland Browns (Week 13), as all those squads played heavy-boot-action type of offenses, which mesh with what both the Packers run and what they see the most in the NFC North. The Broncos (Nathaniel Hackett) and Bears (Luke Getsy) offenses were even called by former Matt LaFleur-era Green Bay coaches last season.
The first thing that was evident, at least against the Broncos and Bears, was that Owens was used almost exclusively as post-safety (shown in the screenshot above.) To stop these type of run-action offenses, at least early on in the 2022 season, the Texans played rookie second-round pick Jalen Pitre as a true strong safety in the box. This left Owens to cover the middle of the field, which wasn’t targeted much due to the defense’s alignment.
You really don’t want to throw the post route when the team is showing a post-safety look pre-snap, as that area of the field is covered.
This philosophy did seem to change at some point, though, as the Texans played more of a split-safety defense (shown in the screenshot above) against the Cleveland Browns. This is the type of defense that the Packers have typically fielded under defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who comes from the quarters-heavy tree via the Los Angeles Rams.
According to Pro Football Focus’ charting, Owens’ 970 defensive snaps last season breakdown like this: 700 reps as a safety (either split or post), 254 reps in the box and 128 reps in the slot. Make no mistake: He’s more of a true safety than a hybrid player.
This is an interesting fit on the Packers' defense, as Darnell Savage — the presumed starter at the position — is somewhat of a smaller “coverage” safety who has struggled with tackling consistently over the years. If Owens were to win the starting job opposite of Savage, would the team rather play Savage (who has struggled to tackle) or Owens (who hasn’t played that spot much) in the box when the defense wants to field single-high looks? I don’t think we have an answer to that question as of today.
Owens will be competing with Rudy Ford (a spot-starter last year), Anthony Johnson Jr. (a rookie seventh-round who is a converted cornerback) and Tarvarius Moore (a special teams ace who mostly played in the slot for San Francisco) for playing time in this upcoming season. As far as complementary pieces go, I’m unsure how this safety group will play off of each other, unless they commit fully to these split-safety looks moving forward. There isn’t a 220-pounder to play in the box, at least now that 2019-2022 starter Adrian Amos has hit free agency.
Jonathan Owens (@jjowens_3) was everywhere yesterday.— Chancellor Johnson (@ChancellorTV) September 12, 2022
Besides finishing 2nd on the team in tackles with 15, he also had two touchdown saving plays.
1: Open field tackle on Jonathan Taylor
2: PBU on Ashton Dulin in the back of the end zone pic.twitter.com/vBKYviRBad
As far as the traits that Owens shows on the field, beyond just his alignment, I saw a consistent tackler who doesn’t completely stonewall a ball carrier’s momentum but does a good job of bringing players down to the ground. For what it’s worth, PFF graded Owens as the 15th safety in the league last year in terms of his tackling grade, making 117 tackles out of 128 attempts.
In the coverage game, I think his 4.43-second 40-yard dash time translates to the field, but he wasn’t put in tough coverage positions often due to his placement as a post safety, primarily. Is this a blindspot in his evaluation or where the Packers see the potential for another diamond in the rough signing, like De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas before him? I guess only time will tell there.
In the end, I think Owens is a pretty solid safety who can either push Ford for a starting job or back up Savage at the position. The major question I still have moving forward is what Green Bay wants its identity to be at safety. Owens and Savage seem to be pretty similar players — though, Owens is a better tackler — while Ford is stronger and more violent but is a tick behind the two in terms of athletic ability in coverage.
At the very least, Owens brings the Packers some proven depth off of the bench, which could go a long way if either Savage or Ford miss time in 2023.