Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett works against Vic So'oto during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field, Thursday, August 11, 2011. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette
If there was any doubt who the Green Bay Packers’ starting strong safety would be this season, that’s been erased less than two weeks into training camp.
On the first day in which he was cleared to participate in team drills, Morgan Burnett was back with the number one defense. And he’s been there ever since.
As well as Charlie Peprah played last season after Burnett was lost for the season when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Week 4 against Detroit, it speaks volumes about what the Packers think of Burnett and his future that they’ve reinstalled him as the starter without much of a competition.
While Burnett says he’s taking nothing for granted, and Peprah isn’t willing to concede anything yet, it has become clear which direction the Packers are going. They’re going with the guy they drafted in the third round out of Georgia Tech last year, not a guy they re-signed as a street free agent.
“I’m looking forward to Morgan taking that next step and really showing us the reason why we took him when we did,” Packers safeties coach Darren Perry said. “Just keep him healthy, and I think all the things that excited us about him at Georgia Tech will show up.”
The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Burnett was a playmaker extraordinaire in college. In just three seasons, he intercepted 14 passes – tying for second most in school history – and 11 of those came in his sophomore and junior years combined. An early entry into the draft, Burnett was picked at No. 71 overall after the Packers traded up 15 spots, giving up a fourth-round pick, to take him.
On his first day with the Packers in the spring of 2010, he began working alongside free safety Nick Collins with the starters, assuming the spot previously held by the oft-injured Atari Bigby. Some of Burnett’s playmaking skills showed up in the early going. He had a takeaway in his second regular-season game, a fourth-quarter interception against Buffalo. On the play, he wrestled the ball away from receiver Roscoe Parrish, answering some of the questions about whether he could handle the physical aspect of the NFL game.
Burnett made his share of mistakes, too, like the pass interference penalty in Week 3 at Chicago that wiped out an interception by Collins deep in Packers’ territory. But the Packers believe those would have lessened as the season went on.
“As a rookie, there were so many things that he didn’t know,” Perry said. “You can tell by some of the questions that they ask that maybe he didn’t know it quite as well as he needed to last year, but he was thrown into the fire, and I thought he handled it quite well.”
Despite missing all but four games of last season and having no offseason to work with the coaches because of the lockout, Burnett has shown a greater understanding of the defense, according to Perry.
“I’ll tell you what, I don’t think Morgan is far off at all,” Perry said. “Mentally, he’s so much further along than he was last year.”
Burnett spent his offseason in Atlanta, where he continued to rehabilitate the knee that team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie reconstructed last fall. That Burnett was cleared to return to team drills on a full-time basis just four practices into training camp spoke to the diligence of his rehab and his conditioning. McKenzie typically likes to bring back players with ACL tears very slowly.
“I was in shape,” Burnett said. “But just getting used to running around with your equipment and still trying to clean up a lot of techniques and get your alignment right, it’s still a long journey back.”
Physically, there’s no evidence the knee has given him any problems. He showed off his ball skills and his vertical leap in Tuesday’s practice when he intercepted a high pass that sailed through the hands of rookie receiver Randall Cobb. Perhaps the best thing about Burnett is that he’s only 22 years old.
“I’ll say this, I think he’s having a really good camp,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Part of it is Morgan’s approach. He’s smart. You know if you coach Morgan on something, he’s going to do it that way. He’s a good athlete. I like what I see out of Morgan right now. I think he’s having a good camp. It will be fun to see him in those preseason games.”
Playing smart was perhaps Peprah’s best attribute last season. He effectively communicated play calls and pre-snap adjustments and his understanding of the defense, which put him in the proper place and helped make up for some of his athletic deficiencies.
“I just tried to be reliable and accountable,” the 5-11, 203-pound Peprah said. “That was the focus last year, and it showed.”
Asked what he thought he proved last season, the 28-year-old, sixth-year journeyman said: “That I can play and guys can rely on me and that you can win with me in there.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @RobDemovsky.