Morgan Burnett true safety valve on Packers defense
Green Bay — He’s played both safety positions during his first seven years in Green Bay and recently added inside linebacker to the countless hats he wears.
He can defend receivers in the slot or battle guards in the hole. He can blitz off the edge, defend the deep middle and do everything in-between.
Morgan Burnett is Green Bay’s jack-of-all-trades. He’s also one of the most respected players in the locker room, yet one of their more under-appreciated players nationally.
Now, as Burnett enters a contract year, his value to Green Bay’s defense has probably never been higher. Whether or not Packers general manager Ted Thompson and Vice President of Football Administration / Player Finance Russ Ball agree and choose to make him a lifetime-Packer remains to be seen.
“Really, that’s not my job,” Burnett said when asked about his contract. “My job is to go in and play safety, play football. We have people in this organization who handle those kinds of things and my job is to just keep playing football. So that’s what I’m going to do. Play football.”
Burnett has done that with aplomb these last seven seasons. And while Burnett hasn’t ever reached a Pro Bowl, he was ranked as the NFL’s 11th best safety (out of 64) by Pro Football Weekly this season.
Burnett has started every game he’s been healthy — an average of 12.9 per season — since entering the league in 2010. Burnett has averaged 106.8 tackles per season over the last six years and was the only Packer to surpass 100 tackles each year between 2011-’14.
Burnett had a career-high three sacks in 2016, the second-highest total among NFL safeties. And Burnett’s 71/2 career sacks are the third-most by a Packer safety since 1982, trailing only LeRoy Butler (201/2) and Mark Murphy (11).
Reliable. Accountable. Professional.
Burnett has been all of the above, and has become the poster child for the term “Packer People” that Green Bay’s management talks about.
“He’s a pros-pro and he can do anything on a football field you ask him to do,” Packers cornerback Davon House said. “Morgan lines everyone up. Morgan can go guard slot receivers, play in the box. The things he can do, it’s big. He can get sacks, picks on the ball. Zone, man. He can do it.”
Last season, Burnett also began playing inside linebacker when the Packers went to their nickel defense. While the 212-pound Burnett often gave up 100 pounds to fire-breathing interior linemen, he more than held his own and produced a terrific season.
Burnett led the secondary in tackles per snap (one every 10.2) and the safeties in passes defensed per snap (one every 78.7). Burnett missed 1½ games with a groin injury, or his playing time of 88.9% would have been even higher.
This summer, Burnett has seen even more time at inside linebacker as the Packers have employed their three-safety ‘Nitro’ package more than ever before.
“Burnett has done it – and done it well – what we’ve asked him to do,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of Burnett playing inside linebacker in the ‘Nitro’ package. “So he knows it pretty well now. He understands it.”
Many safeties in many cities — especially ones with the track record Burnett has — might balk at a position change like this. Instead of dealing with players his own size in the back half of the field, Burnett is often battling much larger men and doing it in a phone booth.
But you’ll never hear a peep from Burnett.
“I enjoy playing the game of football and I take pride in being a competitor every time I step out onto the football field,” said the 28-year-old Burnett. “It doesn’t matter where you line me up. I’m going to find a way to make it work.
“If they want me coming down to play in the box, I’ll play in the box. If they want me to stay back in the middle of the field, I’ll play in the middle of the field. I feel with our defense as a safety you have to be versatile. It’s not just a free safety-type player, it’s not just a strong safety-type player. You have to be able to do both. You have to come in the box, play the run, play deep and sometimes go into the slot and cover a receiver or tight end man-to-man. You have to be versatile in this defense.”
Burnett has been that — and then some. Yet names like the New York Giants’ Landon Collins, Kansas City’s Eric Berry, Seattle’s Earl Thomas and even Green Bay’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are mentioned long before Burnett’s when the NFL’s top safeties are discussed.
“That doesn’t bother me one bit,” Burnett said. “My main goal is just to go out and earn the respect of my peers throughout the league. The most important thing is how the guys on my team feel about me, and I think they have a lot of trust in me and I have a lot of trust in them.
“But that’s the chip I have on my shoulder. You always want to go out there and prove yourself. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done the year before or what you’ve done in your career. It matters what you’ve done this season and that’s just how I go about challenging myself. Just find a way to get better and keep improving.”
The Packers will face a tough decision with Burnett when the season ends.
Green Bay might have found Burnett’s heir-apparent in April’s draft with second-round safety Josh Jones. But Burnett is still in the prime of his career and is one of the unquestioned leaders of a defense that lacks leadership.
Burnett, his wife Nicolette and their two young sons would love to stay in Green Bay. And Burnett said he’d like to eventually become a lifetime Packer.
This season will go a long ways toward determining if that happens or not.
“This is a great organization from the top all the way to the playing field,” Burnett said. “Family-oriented organization. Everything they do caters to the players … and then you talk about the fans. You just can’t beat that. I’m just blessed to be here going on eight years. That’s something my family and I will always appreciate. So it would mean a lot to finish up here.”
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