Packers take sobering step backward at safety position
Eighth in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series.
GREEN BAY - As the evolution of football revises job descriptions for nearly every position, few have been affected more drastically than safeties, the longtime sentries of center field whose duties seemingly have tripled as quarterbacks dominate the game.
Whether through injury, experimentation or schematic intention, the Green Bay Packers had begun to stretch that trend at the seams under former defensive coordinator Dom Capers, and 2017 was no exception. As the Packers mounted an ill-fated playoff push, their defense employed as many as four safeties on any given snap, with responsibilities ranging from deep middle of the field to inside linebacker to slot cornerback.
Once again, position coach Darren Perry was afforded a wealth of bodies during the initial selection of the 53-man roster as safeties occupied five slots. He waved goodbye to utility tool Micah Hyde during free agency, but the Packers replaced Hyde with the hyper-athletic Josh Jones in the second round of the draft. Perry lost Kentrell Brice to an ankle injury in early November but already had received Jermaine Whitehead from the practice squad two weeks prior.
Nonetheless, what felt like a burgeoning group in 2016 stubbed its collective toe from start to finish a year later. The starters, Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, were far less effective than they were in 2017. And the youngsters, namely Brice and Jones, were as unreliable as they were disappointing given their athletic gifts.
Perry chose to leave the Packers to pursue other opportunities after coach Mike McCarthy wouldn’t hire him for the defensive coordinator job and promoted cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. to passing game coordinator.
If McCarthy and his staff aimed to involve Jones as much as possible, thus expediting his learning curve, then they certainly succeeded. Jones didn’t play from scrimmage in the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks but averaged 49 snaps per game for the rest of the year, including five games with 60 or more. His total of 735 snaps exceeded that of Burnett, who was limited to 728 due to nagging injuries, and Jones gained valuable experience at several different positions. Though his performance was far from pretty, Jones should feel fairly comfortable as he enters his second season.
There was a lot of bad. Poor play, or at the very least inconsistency, was at the heart of the safety room, afflicting veterans and young players alike. While Burnett appeared to lose some of his athleticism, perhaps declining after a punishing career, Clinton-Dix seemed bereft of the desire to tackle and, in the season finale, bereft of any desire at all. Brice likewise regressed in his second season, missing tackles at an astonishing rate (17.9 percent) and continuing to struggle in coverage against receivers and tight ends. The rookie, Jones, always played 1,000 miles an hour but made frequent mistakes that led to blown coverages and huge gains allowed in the passing game.
Unknown — and that’s the frightening part for general manager Brian Gutekunst and the personnel department. Theoretically, the Packers have a quality veteran in Clinton-Dix and plenty of athleticism with Brice, Jones and Marwin Evans, another former undrafted rookie. But in practice, the back end of the defense was more wasteland than pasture last season. Burnett will become an unrestricted free agent in March, and Gutekunst must decide if the 29-year-old is worth a third contract in spite of his injury problems. It’s a tricky situation; Burnett is the most reliable member of the secondary when healthy.
Kentrell Brice: Improved significantly as a communicator and played assignment-conscious football during training camp. Entered the season poised for a significant role as the Packers leaned heavily on their nitro package, which moved Burnett and/or Jones to an inside linebacker spot. He averaged 48 snaps per game alongside Clinton-Dix before an ankle injury landed him on injured reserve seven weeks into the season. Remains erratic in coverage, especially against tight ends who know how to use their bodies, and missed way too many tackles for someone known as a big hitter. His athleticism doesn’t always translate as expected. Grade: D
Morgan Burnett: Heart and soul of the secondary for the Packers. He is the best communicator on defense and wears the headset whenever healthy; the coaches trust him implicitly. Missed four games due to hamstring and groin injuries, the frequency of which makes you wonder if his body is in decline. Still finished fourth on the team in tackles (68) and fourth in tackles for loss (5). Packers applied his football smarts to a variety of positions: strong safety, inside linebacker and slot corner in both nickel and dime alignments. He started to struggle with range as the season went on, evidenced by the 33-yard touchdown to Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown in which Burnett couldn’t reach the sideline in Cover 2. Missed only 4.2 percent of tackles. Grade: B-
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: It was a forgettable season in virtually every aspect for Clinton-Dix. Despite remarkable durability (99.6 percent playing time), there was nothing reliable about his performance from week to week. There were games in which he lacked explosiveness and appeared incapable of changing direction. There were others in which he shied away from contact or gambled at inopportune moments. He floundered while wearing the communication helmet against the New Orleans Saints. He missed 11.2 percent of tackles, nearly triple the rate of Burnett. Perhaps most egregiously, Clinton-Dix seemed to quit on his teammates in the season finale in Detroit by exerting minimal effort on some plays. Wants to be a leader but lacks accountability. Finished second on the team in tackles (79) and interceptions (3). Grade: D
Marwin Evans: Played 331 snaps on special teams, second only to outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell (354). Evans led the Packers in special-teams tackles with 9; nobody else had more than 5. Had 3 special-teams tackles in the season finale. Buried on the depth chart at safety, he played 10 or fewer snaps from scrimmage in 11 of 16 games. Earned a start in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals with Brice on the inactive list and made 4 tackles in 54 snaps. Good athlete but looked lost at times defensively. Grade: D+
Josh Jones: Inherited the title of offseason poster child from inside linebacker Blake Martinez. Jones is a physical specimen whose combination of size and athleticism was breathtaking during training camp. Capers asked him to play strong safety, inside linebacker and slot corner at various times throughout the season. Jones was most impactful near the line of scrimmage, where he sliced into the backfield for 3 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. However, Jones imploded the further back he went. Mental mistakes were a major issue in coverage, and Jones led the team in explosive gains allowed. He often was caught peeking into the backfield rather than keeping his eyes on receivers, especially in zone calls. Generally struggled in coverage. Most penalized player on the team with eight (seven accepted). Missed 7.8 percent of tackles, same as cornerback Damarious Randall. Erratic play on special teams forced the coaches to bench him. Grade: D-
Jermaine Whitehead: Promoted to the active roster in late October and became a regular contributor in small doses. When injuries struck, Whitehead played as a slot corner in the dime defense with Burnett as the nickel on the opposite side. Averaged 19 snaps from scrimmage over the final five weeks. Not overly fast, but he plays with toughness and a good motor. Coaches trusted him to run a fake punt against the Cleveland Browns, and he was successful. Recovered an onside kick against the Lions in Week 17. Whitehead played 190 snaps on special teams (seventh-most on the team) and made 5 special-teams tackles (tied for second) despite appearing in only 10 games. Grade: D+