Morgan Burnett's exit clears the way for the Packers' young safeties

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers strong safety Josh Jones (27) emerges from the pile with the intercepted ball in overtime against the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 10, 2017 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

GREEN BAY - Even as Morgan Burnett’s market dropped in the first week of free agency, leading to a three-year deal Tuesday with the Pittsburgh Steelers worth a reported $14.5 million, the veteran safety’s future with the Green Bay Packers appeared to be over.

It is easy to look at the Packers’ porous pass defense and think the team needs help everywhere in its secondary. In reality,  the two positions that comprise their defensive backfield are in very different circumstances. The Packers remain in desperate need of starting-caliber cornerbacks after trading Damarious Randall to the Cleveland Browns earlier this month.

Their safety position is flush with options to replace Burnett.

From the moment they drafted Josh Jones in the second round last spring, the Packers seemed intent to move on from Burnett this offseason. It was a rough rookie year for Jones. After the season, he said Burnett’s tutelage would help going forward.

“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.”

The Packers were interested enough in retaining Burnett to have exploratory conversations at the NFL scouting combine, a source said. At the time, the source said, Burnett’s asking price was more than $8.5 million annually, and those talks never materialized into something more substantial.

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Another source doubted Burnett would get near his asking price, despite being a top safety on the market. The Packers’ overall poor defensive showing last season might limit his market, the source said. But soft-tissue injuries also led to durability issues in recent years. Burnett hasn’t played a full season since 2012, and missed four games last fall because of hamstring and groin injuries.

Burnett only just turned 29 in January, young enough to expect a significant third NFL contract, but his durability concerns couldn’t be ignored. The Packers will get younger at safety, relying on their depth with Jones, Kentrell Brice and perhaps even Milwaukee native Marwin Evans. It’s an inexperienced but motivated group, presumably eager for the opportunity ahead.

“I have some coffee for you, if you do sleep on me,” Brice tweeted Tuesday.

Having replacement options in the fold doesn’t mean they’ll be successful. In Burnett, the Packers are losing a key piece to their defense over the past few seasons.

Known for his versatility, Burnett spent time as a box linebacker and slot corner last season. He wore the communication helmet and was responsible for presnap calls and checks.

“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.”

In a league where safeties are given more responsibilities seemingly every year, Burnett’s ability to drop into the box, line up in the slot and play deep was deemed especially valuable.

Instead, Burnett entered a safety market worse than most around the league expected. The $4.83 million annual average on his reported deal with the Steelers will be less than the four-year, $24.75 million from his 2013 contract extension with the Packers.

“Safety market was bad,” a source said.

Bennett thanked the Packers, his teammates and Green Bay fans Tuesday on Instagram. To the fans, Burnett said, "Thank you for turning a game at Lambeau Field into an amazing environment (especially in negative degree weather)."

The Packers will miss Burnett’s experience on the back end. He was a steadying influence in recent years, a field general. One scout suggested the Packers would be reluctant to lose Burnett in light of fellow safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s struggles last season.

But with the makeup of their roster, whatever financial resources the Packers pump into their secondary figure to go toward replenishing their cornerback depth chart. That was apparent even before the Packers traded Randall to the Browns.

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The Packers have made a habit of replacing veteran defensive backs with younger, cheaper talent. In the past two offseasons, management watched starters depart in free agency, only to blossom into Pro Bowl talents. The Packers let cornerback Casey Hayward walk after the 2015 season, and safety Micah Hyde last year.

Hayward, a Pro Bowler each of the past two years, signed a three-year, $36 million extension with the Los Angeles Chargers this spring. Hyde was a Pro Bowler in his first season with the Buffalo Bills, helping the franchise end its long playoff drought.

Now Burnett has a chance to bolster a rapidly improving Steelers secondary. Pittsburgh ranked fifth in the NFL in pass defense last season, two years after ranking 30th in 2015. The Steelers released veteran Mike Mitchell last week, creating a vacancy at safety.

“I feel like I had a great run here, eight years,” Burnett said after the season. “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.”

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