GREEN BAY - He was drafted six years ago to be a center fielder on the back end of the Green Bay Packers' defense. Morgan Burnett, a ball hawk in college, was supposed to allow All-Pro safety Nick Collins to roam free.
Over time, Burnett became the player general manager Ted Thompson expected. Just not in the way Thompson expected. He is not a center fielder in the Packers' defensive backfield; Thompson later drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to fill that role. He is not a ball hawk; with just seven career interceptions and one in his past three seasons.
Yet Burnett, twice a defensive captain, has become indispensable in the Packers' secondary. An elite run defender, he provides an enforcer in the box. Now, the Packers are getting creative.
In training camp’s opening week, Burnett took reps as a nickel linebacker. He lined up beside rookie linebacker Blake Martinez, filling Jake Ryan’s usual spot. There were six defensive backs on the field, two deep safeties behind Burnett, a small but fast personnel group.
It’s too early to predict how often Burnett will play linebacker this fall, or even if he will. Through three camp practices, this experiment is still in its clinical phase. Potentially, Burnett’s versatility could be a watershed change for a Packers defense heavy on subpackage formations.
“I think Morgan can play two or three positions,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He can play safety, he can come down and play dime. I think he covers very well for a guy with his size. I think he supports the run.”
The possibility for Burnett to play dime linebacker is intriguing. If the Packers add it to his responsibilities, they would follow a league-wide trend Thompson acknowledged Friday is becoming more necessary in the modern game.
With more speed on the field, defenses have been forced to adjust. A new position has been created, the hybrid safety role, where big safeties are moved to the linebacker level. There, they are stout enough to hold up against the run, quick enough to cover running backs, tight ends and slot receivers.
Examples are easy to find around the NFL. In Arizona, Deone Bucannon (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) was an over-sized safety drafted in the first round to play linebacker. Mark Baron (6-2, 213) was an All-American safety at Alabama who thrived at linebacker last season after struggling in his first three seasons. A handful of hybrid safeties were drafted this spring.
Burnett (6-1, 209) would be an undersized linebacker, though within weight range for specific matchups. Capers believes Burnett has a hybrid safety’s skill set.
“I don’t think there’s any question he does,” Capers said. “He’s got good size. He can run. He’s a tough guy. With all the speed that people are putting on the field, you have to be able to match that speed up on defense. Because that’s what everybody is looking for, one-on-one matchups. If you fall short in an area, you can get exposed pretty quick.”
In the past, the Packers have been exposed with one-on-one matchups in the middle of the field.
They moved Clay Matthews to inside linebacker midway through the 2014 season because their run defense needed an upgrade, but also because A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones no longer could handle their coverage responsibilities. Matthews played a career-high 194 coverage snaps in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus, then blew that total away with 359 last season.
The Packers have made it clear Matthews will play full-time outside linebacker this season, though Capers left open the possibility he could be moved inside for certain matchups. Martinez was drafted in the fourth round to fill the void Matthews’ return to the edge leaves at nickel linebacker.
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With Sam Barrington missing the entire offseason program while recovering from foot surgery that cost him last season’s final 15 games, Martinez has gotten almost exclusively first-team reps. So far, Capers said, his rookie has impressed. Regardless, Martinez still is a rookie, and Capers has a history of being patient — perhaps too patient, at times — with a first-year linebacker’s development.
The Packers will have to determine whether their current inside linebacker position can withstand Matthews’ departure, especially in coverage. When asked Friday, Capers offered no guarantees.
“That’s why we’re here in training camp,” he said. “We’ll have to figure that out as we go along. I think we’ve got guys out there working hard, competing, and I don’t think you ever know those (answers) until you get through the preseason games and that sort of thing. The picture becomes clearer and clearer.”
If Martinez struggles, perhaps Burnett can be a backup plan. The Packers almost certainly would prefer to keep Burnett in the role he played over the past few seasons, remaining versatile but also joining Clinton-Dix on the back end. Regardless, Capers has good reason to believe Burnett can handle more exposure as a box defender.
A year ago, Burnett struggled tackling receivers after the catch. He missed one tackle in coverage for every 6.5 attempted tackles, ranking 42nd among all NFL safeties in efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus. As a run defender, Burnett missed one tackle every 23 attempts, ranking third across the league at his position.
Whatever the reason for the disparity, it wasn’t surprising. Burnett ranked 10th in tackling efficiency as a run-stopping safety in 2014, 20th in coverage.
The Packers gradually have moved Burnett closer to the box over the years. In each of the past three seasons, he has ranked among the top 15 safeties in percentage of snaps played inside the box. He played 19 percent of his snaps inside the box last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Burnett said he would be open to playing dime linebacker, although he would not speak to any specifics of how the Packers are using him in camp.
“I think as a safety in our defense, you have to be versatile," Burnett said. "It’s not just one guy set to play the ball, the other guy set to play deep. Since I’ve been here, it’s been a situation where the strong safety and free safety are interchangeable. So there’s times when you have to be in the box, there’s time you have to be playing deep.”
Another motive for the Packers using Burnett as a hybrid safety could be the potential to maximize their defensive talent. Coach Mike McCarthy has long said his goal is to get the best players on the field. Over the years, that has meant cross-training players with multiple positions.
“The more you can do,” Capers said. “We like Morgan. He’s an experienced safety, and he’s had a lot of reps there. We just feel it’s smart to try to get him some reps closer to the line of scrimmage in case we need him there.”