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Packers Training Camp Preview: Safety group has veteran moxie & young talent

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The Packers’ starting safeties are as good a duo as you’ll find in the NFL, but there looks to be great young depth behind them.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing our series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ 90-man roster prior to training camp, Acme Packing Company examines the inside linebackers and reveals the pre-camp predictions for the team’s 2017 53-man roster. Ten APC contributors submitted full roster predictions, and we will present the consensus predictions drawn from those individual guesses over the next few days.

Gone are the days of having to debate whether to classify players on the Packers’ roster as safeties or cornerbacks. Now we get to debate whether they are safeties or inside linebackers.

Micah Hyde’s departure leaves a backup safety and primary slot corner position vacant in Green Bay, but the team’s willingness to plug Morgan Burnett in at inside linebacker when in a nickel or dime alignment is a new wrinkle, introduced midway through the 2016 season. With the addition of Josh Jones, who also is lining up in a similar hybrid S/LB role, that’s the position overlap to focus on this season as we look at the safety position.

Here is a look at the safeties that the Packers have on their 90-man roster a few days before the start of training camp.

Returning Players

Morgan Burnett

Year: 8th
Age: 28
How acquired: Third-round draft pick in 2010 (71 overall)

Burnett’s role went through a great evolution in 2016, as he began taking significant snaps at inside linebacker in the middle of the season, due at least in part to the injuries the Packers were going through at that position. In that role, Burnett was an effective cover man and run supporter, and with the continued growth of Kentrell Brice and the addition of Josh Jones, we should see more of this in 2017.

Adding to Burnett’s versatility is the fact that he was regularly called on late in the season as a slot cornerback in the dime (due to the myriad injuries that hurt the depth at corner). This year, the depth at that position should allow him to focus on safety and his linebacker duties.

Burnett will be a free agent next offseason, and the Packers will likely have a tough decision to make on him in the spring.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Year: 4th
Age: 24
How acquired: First-round draft pick in 2014 (21 overall)

The first Packers first-round pick under the new CBA to receive a fifth-year option, Clinton-Dix made his first Pro Bowl last season and has become one of the NFL’s best all-around safeties. He has been solid as a deep free safety, and is an excellent tackler and run supporter. Clinton-Dix led the Packers in interceptions last year with 5, a big step forward for him in that regard.

Kentrell Brice

Year: 2nd
Age: 22
How acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent in 2017

Brice made the team as a UDFA rookie last season after backing up his reputation as a big hitter in the preseason. As the year went on he saw more and more time at strong safety as Burnett took snaps at slot corner and inside linebacker. He played extensively in the Packers’ divisional playoff victory over the Cowboys when Burnett went out with an injury. Brice appears to be a lock to make the team and contribute both on defense and special teams.

Marwin Evans

Year: 2nd
Age: 24
How acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent in 2017

An Oak Creek native who played at Utah State, Evans surprised us last season by making the team out of training camp. He was clearly well behind Brice on the depth chart, however, only seeing significant playing time in the NFC Championship Game when Brice was injured early on. He will be in a tough fight to make the team for a second straight season.

Jermaine Whitehead

Year: 1st
Age: 24
How acquired: Signed as free agent in 2016

Whitehead entered the NFL in 2015, landing on the 49ers’ practice squad before signing with the Ravens for the final two games of the season. He was then waived in May of 2016, when the Packers picked him up. He spent all of last season on the practice squad and has an opportunity to fight for a roster spot this season.

Whitehead was ticketed this offseason for speeding, reportedly driving 110 miles per hour up I-43 late at night. He apparently had a couple of teammates in his car and was trying to get back to Green Bay from Milwaukee in time for the next day’s OTA practice.

New Acquisitions

Josh Jones

Year: Rookie
Age: 22
How acquired: Second-round draft pick in 2017 (61 overall)

Jones’ rookie year may determine what the Packers elect to do with Burnett in the offseason. The rookie appears to be slated for a similar role to Burnett, playing safety as well as inside linebacker in sub packages. He had a big hit in OTAs on wideout Jeff Janis (a no-no in non-contact drills), but that shows his willingness to throw his body around. One question for him in training camp centers around how his snaps are distributed; will he be a big safety who plays some inside linebacker, or does the team view him as more of a Deone Bucannon — an undersized linebacker who has some safety qualities? For now, the team lists him at safety on the roster and refers to the personnel grouping with him and Burnett as a sub package (nicknamed “Nitro”), so we’ll keep calling him a safety for the time being.

Aaron Taylor

Year: Rookie
Age: 23
How acquired: Signed as undrafted free agent in 2017

With established depth at safety and a high draft pick spent on the position, the Packers brought in just a single undrafted rookie this season. Taylor, a product of Ball State, has good size but his college stats (no interceptions and four pass breakups) suggest that his ball skills are limited. He’ll have an uphill climb if he wants to break onto the 53, and probably even a tough fight to make the practice squad.