Aaron Nagler speaks with Pete Dougherty about the addition of tight end Jimmy Graham to the Packers offense as well as the departure of wide receiver Jordy Nelson. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – Amid sweeping changes already underway this offseason, the Green Bay Packers’ defense could be losing its field general.
With free agency set to begin at 3 p.m. Wednesday, league sources said the Packers could be priced out of retaining unrestricted free-agent safety Morgan Burnett. The Packers had exploratory conversations with Burnett’s representation two weeks ago at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, sources said. At the time, one source said, Burnett’s asking price averaged more than $8.5 million annually.
That would be a significant raise from the four-year, $24.75 million extension Burnett signed in 2013, though also emblematic of the NFL’s rapidly rising salary cap.
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Burnett has had durability issues in recent seasons. He hasn’t played all 16 games since 2012, his third season. Injuries forced him to miss four games last season, and five games in 2015.
Yet Burnett only just turned 29, young enough for a team to believe he still has quality football ahead. In a league in which safeties are asked to fill more and more roles, Burnett’s versatility is deemed especially valuable.
“I feel like that helps out a lot,” Burnett said after the Packers’ season finale in Detroit. “Just to showcase my versatility, and not be just a one-dimensional safety. I’ve proven that I can play in the box. I can play deep, center field, come off the hash. I can get down and cover tight ends. I can get down and cover receivers in the slot.”
Two teams expected to pursue Burnett are the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns, a league source said. The Browns already received one defensive back from the Packers this month, trading for cornerback Damarious Randall. The Bears lack a seasoned veteran on the back end of their defense.
Both teams have much more cap room than the Packers to accommodate a deal.
One source doubted Burnett would get his asking price on the open market, saying the overall poor showing last season from the Packers’ defense could limit his earning potential. If his price drops, the Packers could be in the mix. With Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s struggles last season, a source suggested the Packers would be hesitant to lose their most experienced safety.
When healthy, Burnett wore the communication helmet last season and was responsible for pre-snap calls and checks. Along with sharing time as a box linebacker and slot corner, part of Burnett’s on-field responsibility was ensuring the defense operated smoothly.
Two days after the season, Burnett expressed a desire to return.
“It’s a great organization,” Burnett said. “It’s more so the bond that you build inside the locker room. Because the locker room is the most important thing to me.”
The Packers’ depth at safety makes it unlikely they would pay top dollar for Burnett. They drafted Josh Jones in the second round last year presumably as insurance in case Burnett departed this spring in free agency. Kentrell Brice, a former undrafted safety entering this third season, has had strong support inside the organization.
After the season, Jones said he appreciated Burnett sharing some of his wisdom this past season.
“When I come back next year,” Jones said, “I’m going to have seen mostly everything. So it’ll slow down a lot for me.”
Burnett, a third-round pick in 2010, spent his first eight seasons in Green Bay. To remain with the Packers, Burnett would require a lucrative third contract. Such deals are rare for the organization, even rarer for defensive backs.
Under former general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers declined to sign safety Micah Hyde and cornerback Casey Hayward to second contracts.
Burnett could be next to leave.
“I’m just a guy that I control what I can control,” Burnett said after the season. “I feel like I had a great run here, eight years. Whatever is in store for me, I feel like God has a great plan for me. I’m just going to go home, enjoy the offseason like I would any other year, spend time with my family, and see where the chips fall from there."
Aaron Nagler hosted a Facebook Live session to discuss the Packers signing DE Muhammad Wilkerson and answer questions from readers. (March 13, 2018) Aaron Nagler | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin