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Pete Dougherty column: Lack of safety talent leaves NFL teams shorthanded

Nov. 23, 2013
 
Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42) reacts after the Packers stopped the Baltimore Ravens on fourth down in the second quarter.
Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42) reacts after the Packers stopped the Baltimore Ravens on fourth down in the second quarter. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
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Green Bay Packers safety Jerron McMillian (22) upends San Francisco 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
Green Bay Packers safety M.D. Jennings (43) runs with the ball after a fake punt against the New York Giants in the third quarter during Sunday's game at MetLife Stadium. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

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Early each week, as part of the preparation for a scouting report on the Green Bay Packers’ upcoming opponent, I talk to two or three scouts and coaches around the NFL.

And almost every week this season, when we get to the safeties, a scout or coach will say something to this effect: one is pretty good, but the other should be a backup.

When it happened again a couple of weeks ago regarding the New York Giants, I had to ask: What’s going on here?

“There’s a shortage of safeties in the NFL,” the scout said.

Don’t the Packers know. Like most of the NFL, they have only one bona fide starter, fourth-year pro Morgan Burnett.

As the season goes on, the Packers’ shortcomings at safety grow more apparent. Their defense ranks in the middle of the pack (No. 18 in yards and points allowed) for several reasons, and high on the list is subpar play at safety that has contributed to a glaring lack of playmaking in the secondary.

Going into training camp, the Packers appeared content with M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian vying for the starting job opposite Burnett. The feeling was, at least one would be good enough. That feeling has proven wrong.

Jennings has started every game, but the third-year pro hasn’t grown into the role. He doesn’t have a distinguishing trait and isn’t playing noticeably better than he did a season ago as a fill-in starter and rotational player.

McMillian, a second-year pro, is more dynamic but lost the faith of the coaching staff with repeated errors in coverage. He opened the season getting occasional time at safety and working as the No. 1 dime back, but since committing two major coverage gaffes that allowed a late touchdown to Baltimore on Oct. 13, he’s fallen so far down the depth charts he plays only on special teams even as injuries have reopened the dime position.

It’s become more apparent than ever just how much the Packers miss Nick Collins, whose career ended in Week 2 of the 2011 season because of a herniated disk in his neck. Collins had been to the Pro Bowl the three seasons before his injury and was on his way to a career similar to or even better than former Packers safety LeRoy Butler.

Collins was a fast, explosive athlete who made plays on the ball and tackled well. He helped mitigate deficiencies in the players around him, as best exemplified by the case of Charlie Peprah. In 2010, when the Packers won the Super Bowl, Peprah was perfectly adequate as the Packers’ other starting safety. In ’11, after Collins’ injury, Peprah was a liability.

Collins wouldn’t cure all the Packers’ defensive ills if he were still playing. He’s 30, an age when many NFL players are showing noticeable decline. But because his talent was a cut above most, there’s a good chance he’d still be an excellent player, maybe even the second- or third-best defensive player on the roster, if his career hadn’t ended on what appeared to be a routine tackle.

“Coming out (of Bethune-Cookman) I thought he was really raw,” a scout for another NFL team said this week. “But watching him, he was a vicious hitter and he could run. I’m not sure if he made the checks (at the line of scrimmage), but physically and athletically I thought he was an elite player.”

Collins’ injury cost the Packers in two ways. First, he was a difference-maker, and almost all good defenses have at least a couple difference-makers. The Packers haven’t added a player of his quality at any position on defense since his injury.

Second, the Packers’ play at safety opposite Burnett hasn’t been good enough even if accounting for a drop-off from Collins. Peprah held the job for the final 14˝ games in ’11, then was cut before the start of camp in ’12. Charles Woodson, a likely future Pro Football Hall of Famer, was steep into decline at age 36 by the time he moved to safety in ’12, and when Woodson was out with a broken collarbone, Jennings filled in. Jennings’ play has been about the same this year as last.

The fact is, general manager Ted Thompson hasn’t put many resources into safety since Collins’ injury, likely in part because it has become a low-priority position across the NFL. As measured by the cost of franchise tags, safety at $6.916 million is the third-lowest-paid position, ahead of tight ends ($6.066 million) and punters/kickers ($2.977 million).

In the last two drafts, Thompson has selected only one safety, McMillian, in the fourth round in ’12. By the looks of things, McMillian is in jeopardy of not even surviving his four-year rookie contract with the Packers.

Maybe the biggest surprise of the Packers’ draft last year was that Thompson didn’t select a safety to compete with Jennings and McMillian for the starting job. Going into the draft, the GM appeared to be a good bet to take one in the top three rounds, so it was an eye-opener when Thompson went all seven rounds without augmenting the position.

It’s hard not to admire Thompson’s discipline in not spending a pick on a needed safety if he didn’t think a player justified it at that spot. That’s how draft mistakes are made. But with all his yearly draft-day trading, usually down for extra picks, it was startling that Thompson couldn’t finagle his way to a spot where he could take a safety he liked.

And maybe Thompson and most of the rest of the league have undervalued safeties. The high priority positions are the playmakers: quarterbacks, pass rushers, receivers and cornerbacks. The financial reality of the NFL is that teams have to make do at other spots, and safety is near the top of the make-do list.

“Sometimes you have to be careful minimizing the importance of (safety), because ultimately it’s the last step between the goal line and the big play,” a third scout said. “You can look at them as role players, but the teams that are really good on defense have good safeties, or have an elite safety, on their team.”

A look at the league’s top safety duos bears that out to a large degree, though how much the safeties play into their defense’s rankings is debatable. That scout agreed to go through all the safety tandems in the NFL and identify those with two good starters. He came up with three.

Seattle, with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, was his clear No. 1 duo. The Seahawks, who have talent across the board on defense, rank No. 2 in the NFL in yards allowed and No. 3 in points.

After them were San Francisco (Donte Whitner and Eric Reid), which ranks No. 7 in yards and No. 4 in points; and New Orleans (Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro), which ranks No. 4 in yards and No. 5 in points. He rated Miami (Chris Clemons and Reshad Jones), which is No. 21 in yards allowed and No. 12 in points, as another cut below but better than most.

So there is a shortage of safeties for today’s NFL. The game keeps evolving toward more passing, so the ability of safeties to hold up in pass coverage increases yearly. But as more receiving-oriented tight ends come into the league, so grows the need for bigger safeties to match up with them. And the bigger safeties get, in general, the more their coverage skills suffer.

And though the position is more coverage oriented than ever, there still are important games in which stopping the run is paramount. Then having a physical safety who aggressively fills alleys in run defense is critical.

One of the scouts said college football, where the spread passing game rules, is producing fewer complete safeties.

“If they can run, they can’t tackle,” the scout said, “and if they can tackle, they can’t run. There’s so many things they have to do (in the NFL).”

There’s not a lot the Packers can do about their safety personnel for the rest of this season, though maybe they need to take a longer look at undrafted rookie Chris Banjo, who has been an occasional rotational player recently. He’s short (5-9ľ) but plays bigger at 206 pounds and looks like he’s more effective the closer he plays to the line of scrimmage.

The Packers activated second-year pro Sean Richardson off the physically unable to perform list on Saturday. But Richardson missed all offseason and training camp because of cervical neck fusion surgery last January, so the chances of him contributing on anything other than special teams is a long shot.

As for next year, it’s almost a given that Thompson will draft a safety, and probably in the first three rounds.

You can bet the Packers also will have a long discussion about moving rookie cornerback Micah Hyde to safety. When they drafted him in the fifth round this year, they thought safety could end up his best position but didn’t want to overload him as a rookie, so they kept him at cornerback, where he was one of the standouts of training camp.

Hyde didn’t play much safety in college at Iowa — two games in 2011 — and there could be concerns about his range in coverage. His 4.56-second time at the NFL scouting combine is slightly slower than the approximate 4.51 average of a starting safety in the NFL, and at cornerback he’s had a little trouble on some deep routes (last week the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz ran behind him on a wheel route for a 25-yard catch).

However, Hyde also has shown several characteristics that suggest he could be a good safety: He’s as instinctive as any player on the Packers’ roster, showed ball-hawk skills in training camp and is a physical defensive back who tackles well.

Whether the Packers move him probably will depend on how high a pick they use at safety and how they regard their depth at cornerback, where Hyde has shown promise as a slot cover man in the nickel and dime.

There’s also the possibility that Richardson, an undrafted rookie last year, will blossom with offseason work. He has unusual physical gifts — he’s big for the position at 6-feet-2˝ and 216 pounds, and has excellent straight-line speed (4.43-second 40). But whether he has the instincts and change-of-direction skills to be a starter is far from a given.

More likely, the Packers will be starting a high draft pick opposite Burnett next season. Thompson’s selection of the little-known Collins in the second round in 2005 was inspired. Can the GM do it again in 2014?

— pdougher@pressgazettemedia and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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