Rebuilt safeties room making strides
There was a point early in training camp last year where it looked like the Green Bay Packers might enter the regular season with only three safeties on the active roster.
The failure to augment the roster with a draft pick or veteran hollowed the starting battle between Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings and left the defense without a capable complement for Morgan Burnett.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy vowed not to let the same happen again this offseason. The organization drafted a safety in the first round for the first time in 21 years and increased the resources at a position that failed to generate a turnover last season.
In discarding Jennings and McMillian, the rebuilding centered around promising second-year defensive back Micah Hyde, rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and low-cost scrappers Chris Banjo and Sean Richardson.
All four have made an impact during the first two weeks of training camp and a position once seen as the defense's weakest link has shown signs of life.
"From where we were a year or two ago to now, it's a big difference," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "I think we can all see we think we've gotten better. Obviously, time will tell when you go up against different opponents and you get everything on film and guys start to attack you for what they see on film, then it gets a little bit different and a little more difficult, but I like what I see."
The Packers hope the revolving door of safeties they have endured since Nick Collins' career-ending neck injury in 2011 ends with the competition between Hyde and Clinton-Dix.
With Burnett out with a strained oblique last week, the Packers got a long look at both players in Saturday's preseason opener against Tennessee with each candidate playing 28 defensive snaps.
Clinton-Dix started slowly with an early missed tackle against the diminutive Dexter McCluster, whose 170-pound frame bounced off the would-be tackler for 10 yards. Clinton-Dix responded on the next play by stuffing Bishop Sankey at the line of scrimmage.
Late in the second quarter, Clinton-Dix fell behind Titans tight end Tyler Thompson in the seam, but used his speed to make up the ground and pull a would-be completion from his grasp.
"He's a football player," Hyde said. "He's a play-maker and I think we're seeing that every day in practice. Being in the meeting room with him, he's a smart player. I wasn't surprised with any of the plays he makes. He does it all the time."
Hyde's experience and instincts have allowed him to maintain a lead over Clinton-Dix, but he yields the spot when sliding into the slot of the defense's dime sub-package.
When asked last week if there's a scenario where both players start and Burnett sits, safeties coach Darren Perry said "anything's possible," but it's hard to imagine Burnett not being on the field when healthy.
Although he didn't live up to the expectations of the four-year extension he signed last summer, the 25-year-old has played more snaps than any other defensive player over the past three seasons.
"(We) know what type of player Morgan Burnett is," Banjo said. "You just try to grow watching him play and taking everything from him. ... He's great to have on the field and he's a great person off the field. He's definitely your ideal Packer."
The Packers expected Hyde and Clinton-Dix to seize a role defensively, but the biggest surprise in camp has been the play of Richardson, who has drawn praise from McCarthy for making plays in camp.
Jennings' struggles opened the door for Richardson and Banjo to play a combined 346 defensive snaps last season. While Clinton-Dix and Hyde's presence will make it more difficult for either to see the field this year, both have developed roles on special teams.
What the 5-foot-10, 207-pound Banjo lacks in size, he makes up for in accountability. He worked on both No. 1 kickoff and punt teams against the Titans and has been the personal protector for punter Tim Masthay when Hyde is returning in practice.
Richardson had two interceptions early in camp, along with a few pass break-ups that have caught the coaching staff's attention.
"I think it's much improved," said McCarthy of the team's safety depth. "I think Sean, Chris Banjo, those guys are definitely a full year better. They look a lot more comfortable. ... You know they have an opportunity to be a core player so, and that's what you're looking for from all your players, particularly secondary, to try to be a four-down player."
There weren't many every-down players lurking in the back end last season. With Richardson in midst of a 10½-month layoff because of neck surgery, the Packers' backup safety situation entering camp last year resembled that of a Canadian Football League roster.
It wasn't until Ryan McMahon played himself out of a job that Banjo was brought in. He made the roster and played in all 16 regular-season games, but still feels no sense of comfort as an undrafted free agent who waited more than a year before signing his first NFL contract.
"I think I would have been in the same position in terms of having to prove myself regardless of who we decide to bring in or who we didn't," Banjo said. "It's something that we've been stressing period even before the draft and transitions was just competing regardless and just trying to bring the best out of yourself on a daily basis. We make each other better by doing that."
The last time McCarthy emphasized improvement from a particular sector of the roster the running game sprouted from 20th in the NFL in total yards to seventh. The early successes have led to optimism the back end could follow in 2014.
If the pace holds over the next three preseason games, you could make a case for keeping as many as five at the position depending on the team's definition of Hyde.
That's not bad when considering the situation the Packers were in a year ago at this time.
"We're out there competing and we're making each other better," Hyde said. "That's what Coach (McCarthy) asked for coming into the spring. He wanted to see that position step up and I feel like we're doing that right now."
—firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.