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Packers still searching to replace Collins

Feb. 24, 2013
 
The Green Bay Packers have been searching for a safety ever since Nick Collins was hurt while tackling Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Steward in September 2011. File/Press-Gazette Media
The Green Bay Packers have been searching for a safety ever since Nick Collins was hurt while tackling Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Steward in September 2011. File/Press-Gazette Media

INDIANAPOLIS — The decision wasn’t personal, but one the Green Bay Packers felt needed to be made.

With Charles Woodson coming off his second broken collarbone in three years, the Packers made the move to proceed without the 36-year-old defensive back when they released him and shed his $10 million salary two weeks ago.

In nine games without Woodson, it forced the Packers to get younger.

Casey Hayward established himself as a defensive rookie of the year candidate in Woodson’s spot at slot cornerback while M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian played well enough at safety to open the conversation about potential life without the former Heisman Trophy winner.

Now, the Packers have no choice but to find the replacement they’ve been searching for since losing three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins to a career-threatening neck injury in Week 2 of the 2011 season.

Could that individual be Jennings or McMillian? Possibly, but the answer might also be found in a 2013 safety class Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery lauded this past week for possibly having “five or six starters” in the group.

The draft has the front-line prospects like Florida junior Matt Elam, Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro and LSU’s Eric Reid, and intriguing gambles like former LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu, a 2011 finalist for the Heisman Trophy before being kicked off the team for repeated drug offenses.

“There are a lot of great players. I feel like it’s a deep class,” said Southern California safety T.J. McDonald, who’s the son of former NFL safety Tim McDonald.

“I’m just happy to be able to come out here and compete, and be able to show them how I am compared to this other guys … because if you’re at the top of the class, you must be a really good safety.”

The Packers still haven’t found a difference-maker on the back end quite like Collins, a hard-nosed physical presence who nabbed 21 interceptions with 63 pass deflections in 95 career games.

Minus Collins, the 2011 defense crumbled to last in the league in total defense. The unit made a significant step forward this season this past year, but still showed it could be had at times.

The cornerback contingent seems to have a solid foundation with veteran Tramon Williams, and a plethora of young talent in Sam Shields, Hayward and Davon House.

Third-year pro Morgan Burnett remains the cornerstone at safety after being one of only a handful of defensive plays to play every snap last season with Pro-Bowl potential in the eyes of his coaches.

Across from him, nothing is solidified. After essentially redshirting his rookie season, Jennings was serviceable when thrust into the starting lineup following Woodson’s setback.

The Packers also are high on McMillian, a fourth-round pick last year out of Maine who saw most of his action working inside the box in the team’s dime package based on his physicality.

“For a young guy, he was inconsistent, especially on special teams, but I really like his skill set,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of McMillian.

“M.D., I thought definitely took a big step moving forward. He needs to get stronger. At the end of the day, he graded out probably a little bit higher than I would have thought. I think it will be an excellent group. The most important part of both of those guys is they have a lot of growth in front of them.”

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Get Green Bay Packers updates as they happen from our reporting team: (from left) Mike Vandermause, Wes Hodkiewicz and Pete Dougherty.

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