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ORLANDO, Fla. - At the end of the coaches breakfast during the annual league meeting, a reporter from Pittsburgh posed a question to Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy about what the Steelers could expect from Morgan Burnett, their most recent free-agent signing on a three-year deal worth $14.35 million.
Drafted by the Packers in 2010, Burnett had evolved into a model member of the organization in Green Bay. From a football standpoint, Burnett was an intelligent and reliable leader for former defensive coordinator Dom Capers. And from a more human perspective, Burnett was respected as much for his family values as his dedicated approach to the game.
“Oh, they’re getting a great leader,” McCarthy said. “He’s an extraordinary communicator, great credibility in the locker room and a damn good football player. Class act.”
A large part of organized team activities and training camp will be dedicated to selecting Burnett’s replacement in the starting lineup, with new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine juxtaposing Kentrell Brice and Josh Jones, a second-round pick in last year’s draft. It’s possible their on-field performances will tip the scales drastically in one direction or the other, but until the players hit the field there are other factors to consider that could, in the long run, influence who lines up opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for the 2018 season opener.
And communication — which McCarthy noted was one of Burnett’s strong suits — is chief among them.
Whenever he was healthy, Burnett wore the communication helmet to relay the play calls from Capers, who called games from the press box, to the other 10 players on the field. Simple as the task may sound, the responsibility is a large one in an era when stadiums are louder than ever and opposing offenses forsake the huddle to rush toward the line of scrimmage. The player with a green-dotted helmet must exhibit poise, a thorough knowledge of the defense and the ability to speak clearly amid the wildest of frays.
“You could see when Morgan was out of there the drop off we had in communication,” McCarthy said. “That will be a primary focus for us defensively.”
Nagging injuries cost Burnett four games during the 2017 season, and finding an adequate communicator became a legitimate problem for McCarthy and Capers. Clinton-Dix wore the headset in Week 7 against the New Orleans Saints, and the signs of confusion were plentiful in a 26-17 loss: players looking back at Clinton-Dix seconds before the snap, the defense calling timeout on the Saints’ first drive, at least one snap with 10 men on the field. It was a comedy of errors.
The next-best option was inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who wore the communication helmet for the remainder of the season whenever Burnett was inactive. Martinez is the odds-on favorite to wear the green dot for Pettine in 2018.
“It’s a huge hole that needs to be filled by more than one guy,” McCarthy said.
Even if Martinez wears the communication headset from his linebacker spot, the Packers need a strong communicator in the back end of the defense, especially given Pettine’s exotic pre-snap tendencies and the relative youth of the cornerback group — Tramon Williams notwithstanding. Ideally, the role could be filled by Clinton-Dix, who has never missed a game in his NFL career and plays nearly 100 percent of snaps each year. But the Packers should be loath to trust him in the regular season without a full training camp of proof that things will be different this time around.
“The thing I’ll say about Ha Ha, he needs to just continue to grow as a leader, dive into this new defensive system,” McCarthy said. “I think he’s definitely one of our top guys in the locker room. Great respect for him and the way he goes about it. But hey, it wasn’t my best year either last year. We all own that. To sit there and start putting that onto individuals, that’s not realistic.”
Which brings us back to Brice and Jones, the two players most likely to replace Burnett in the starting lineup. Despite an unsightly rookie year replete with blown coverages, missed tackles and mental mistakes, Jones is the player with the brightest upside for the Packers. It’s the reason former general manager Ted Thompson used a second-round pick on Jones, and it’s the reason the coaching staff envisioned him as a safety-inside linebacker hybrid in 2017.
While that can still be the long-term goal for Jones, who won’t turn 24 until September, the short-term focus involves paring down responsibilities to prevent last year’s overload. Rather than training Jones at both safety and inside linebacker, the Packers plan to use him only at safety in the coming months.
“I think he’s another one of those guys that has the ability to be an impact player,” McCarthy said. “We probably tried to do a little bit too much with him last year, you know? We’re going to start him in the safety room this year, that will be the starting point. It’s like anything, there will be packages where he may have other opportunities.”
Whether Jones can handle the verbal aspect of the safety position could go a long way toward determining his playing time in the early part of next season. First, he must demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of Pettine’s scheme, and then he must communicate that knowledge on a snap-in, snap-out basis during OTAs and minicamp.
If Jones falters — and perhaps even if he doesn’t — Brice will push him for playing time after recovering from the ankle injury that landed him on injured reserve. Brice made significant strides with his knowledge of the defense that triggered widespread praise from the coaching staff last summer, and Capers rewarded him with a starting role in the nitro package when Burnett pushed forward to inside linebacker. There were times in training camp, and even during the regular season, when Brice could be seen pointing members of the secondary in the right direction before the snap.
And though his on-field performance remained uneven, it's that level of positional accountability that could bump Brice ahead of Jones for at least the next few months.
“(Brice) will be right there in the middle of it,” McCarthy said. “Very good communicator, he definitely could be someone that battles for that communication role. … I look for him to fight for a starting position.”