The Green Bay Packers looked to have been in serious trouble at the safety position after the team avoided selecting a safety in the 2013 NFL Draft. With the return of safeties Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings, and Jerron McMillian, both Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and General Manager Ted Thompson said they are “absolutely confident” in what the Packers have in place in the back-end of the defense, and the 2012 regular season numbers can back up their beliefs.
Last season, the Packers defense allowed 218 passing yards per game (11th in NFL), and intercepted 18 passes (t-8th). Opposing quarterbacks threw 24 touchdowns against the Packers defense (16th), but only completed 55.1% of their passes (4th) while recording a 76.8 passer rating (4th).
Despite the release of veteran and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson, the Packers defense shouldn’t skip a beat, as the Packers went 7-2 without Woodson in the lineup.
McCarthy said he likes the Packers depth at safety, and is impressed with the training camp position battle between Jennings and McMillian. “I really like the growth of both (McMillian and Jennings)”, McCarthy said. “Two young guys who have taken a step in communication, and physically, they’re different players than this time last year, and it’s transferring into playmaking abilities”.
After the Packers released Woodson, Burnett is now the unofficial commander and leader of the Packers defensive secondary. Burnett is entering his fourth NFL season since the Packers selected the former Georgia Tech star in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
“Not only has (Burnett) upgraded his play, but he has upgraded in exertion and command as well”, McCarthy said after Burnett signed a four-year contract extension at the start of training camp. “This is the Morgan Burnett we know, and it has been a little more expressed now than any other time.
“There is no pressure”, Burnett said after signing a new contract extension. “It’s an honor and a blessing, and you want to go out there and not let your teammates down”.
Since tearing his ACL four games into his rookie season in 2010, the 6’1, 209-pound safety hasn’t missed one game in the past two seasons in Green Bay. In three NFL seasons, Burnett has started all 36 games which he has appeared in, recording 244 total tackles, three sacks, six interceptions, and forcing four fumbles.
“It comes naturally once you understand the plays”, Burnett said about starting at safety. “I wasn’t as comfortable as a rookie, but with years of learning and growing, you have comfort in making calls”.
“The safety position is very important, and (Burnett) has played very well”, McCarthy said. “He is a key communicator, he is excellent in the box, and he is an excellent open field tackler”.
Last season, Burnett clearly improved, recording a career-high 123 total tackles, two sacks, and forcing two fumbles, while also intercepting two passes. Burnett said he believes the defense will be much better than what they showed in the 45-31 drubbing laid on the Packers by the San Francisco 49ers in last year’s NFC Divisional Round loss.
“I think we will be real good”, Burnett said about the Packers defense. “When watching the film, we are playing fast and not thinking as much. Going against Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, James Jones also helps make us better”.
Jennings, a third-year player out of Arkansas State, unfortunately is best known for last year’s “Fail Mary” which took place in Seattle early last season. The 6’, 195-pound Jennings though doesn’t want to be remembered as the victim of the “Seattle Screwjob”.
Since Jennings made the Packers 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie free agent before the 2011 season, Jennings has appeared in 31 of 32 NFL games, recording 59 total tackles, defending two passes, and officially intercepting one pass in his NFL career.
Jennings is currently in a tight battle with McMillian for the Packers’ remaining starting safety job.
The Packers selected McMillian out of the University of Maine in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL Draft. A play-making, hard-hitting safety at Maine, the 5’11, 203-pound McMillian was second on Maine’s football team in total tackles (92) and tackles for loss (11.5) while manning the defensive secondary.
“He knows the defense inside and out”, McCarthy said regarding McMillians growth from rookie to second-year player. “He is more consistent now, and he has big play making ability”.
Last season as a rookie, McMillian registered 27 total tackles, defended five passes, and recorded one interception. McCarthy has yet to name a starter at strong safety, as the starting job is between McMillian and Jennings.
Entering his second NFL season, Richardson sparingly played on special teams as a rookie in 2012. Signed by the Packers as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Vanderbilt before the 2012 season, Richardson recorded four total tackles in five games last year. For the Commodores, Richardson recorded 256 total tackles, 18 tackles for loss, three sacks, one interception, and he defended ten passes.
A former teammate of Packers cornerback Casey Hayward at Vanderbilt, Richardson is currently battling a neck injury in training camp. McCarthy said Richardson does not have a set time-table to return to the football field, and there is still some heeling which needs to take place.
A 6’, 203-pound second-year player out of Penn State, Powell returns to the Green Bay Packers after spending the final month of the 2012 season on the team’s practice squad. Powell originally signed with the Oakland Raiders as an undrafted rookie free agent after recording a school-record 1,886 career return yards for the Nittany Lions.
The Packers signed Fulton, a 6’, 196-pound rookie, as an undrafted free agent out of Chowan University. An all-around talent at Chowan, Fulton recorded 39 total tackles, five tackles for loss, four interceptions, defended nine passes, registered one sack, and forced one fumble as a senior.
Banjo received honorable mention and 2nd-team All-Conference USA honors during his final two seasons at Southern Methodist University from 2010-2011. In his final two years at SMU, Banjo recorded 174 total tackles, defended 10 passes, and intercepted two passes.
Banjo wasn’t signed by an NFL team until the Jacksonville Jaguars signed him as a free agent in May. Before training camp, the Jaguars released Banjo, and the Packers signed the 5’10, 207-pound safety at the start of training camp. Banjo is likely competing for a spot on special teams.
Favorites to Win Starting Jobs: Burnett, Jennings
Favorites to Make the Team/Practice Squad: Burnett, Jennings, McMillian, Richardson
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