GREEN BAY — When general manager Ted Thompson announced his selections for the 53-man roster in early September, the majority of responses were the same, and they took place in a familiar order:
My gosh, Thompson kept seven wide receivers. Seven!
Four undrafted free agents?! That's soooo Ted.
Wait a minute, why do the Packers have six safeties? Are you kidding?
But as the Packers near the midway point of their season, nearly all of those safeties make legitimate contributions on a weekly basis. It starts with Morgan Burnett and HaHa Clinton-Dix, the two starters, and continues with Micah Hyde, the utility man in the secondary. It incorporates undrafted rookies Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans. And if it weren't for a hamstring injury, Chris Banjo would be involved too.
"This is the deepest safety group I’ve ever seen in my career in the NFL," coach Mike McCarthy said Friday. "It’s really not only they’re good players but they’re versatile. How many times do you have safeties who can play two, maybe three, positions?"
In Hyde and Burnett the Packers have found chameleon-esque qualities capable of adjusting game to game or quarter to quarter. The latter has played as many as four positions this season — free safety, strong safety, inside linebacker, dime cornerback — while the latter floats from corner to safety and back depending on matchups and injuries. Along with Clinton-Dix, who flashed star potential last year, the Packers have a reliable trio that, in most cases, can adapt to any situation.
Brice and Evans, the rookies, have carved out niche roles as well. An athletic marvel, Brice is growing into his place as a safety in the dime defense, where he plays alongside Clinton-Dix. This allows the Packers to incorporate one of the best athletes on their team on a fairly consistent basis, and it allows Burnett to slide forward as a slot corner. Brice is averaging between nine and 15 snaps per game through the first seven weeks of the season. He also ranks second on the team with three tackles on special teams.
Evans, another undrafted free agent, has yet to play from scrimmage this season. Instead he has become a core special teams player for coordinator Ron Zook, who uses him on the majority of kickoff and punt units. Evans is tied for third on the Packers with two special teams tackles.
"I think a lot like the offense, the more players that you can play, the more versatility," McCarthy said. "It’s a great long-term plan but it keeps you hopefully on the aggressive side of matching the offense, where you don’t feel like you’re just playing guys just to play a scheme. We’re able to get in and stay in similar schemes but match people up. Our safeties, particularly with Morgan, give us that."
Banjo suffered a hamstring injury against the New York Giants and has not played since. He is a reserve safety and arguably the Packers' best special teams player.