As the Packers look for answers in their safety unit, two draft prospects stand out
INDIANAPOLIS − The Green Bay Packers enter the start of the new NFL season with questions at tight end, edge rusher and, well, quarterback, but there are also significant concerns in the secondary.
Adrian Amos is a little over a week away from entering free agency, Darnell Savage is coming off a season that saw him benched for a stretch and Rudy Ford was in Green Bay on a one-year deal that has not been renewed. Rasul Douglas started the season as the slot cornerback, but after Eric Stokes was lost for the season to a knee injury, Douglas moved outside while Ford moved to nickel. Stokes should be recovered by the time the season rolls around, but time will tell.
So yes, there are questions and general manager Brian Gutekunst is fine with taking his time, surveying the options before putting the puzzle back together.
“Whatever best five we have and how that fits, I think we'll get to by the time the games roll around,” Gutekunst told reporters Tuesday, “but I don't know how that's gonna fit right now.”
The Packers could move Douglas to safety and Savage to nickel, or bring in a new body for either spot.
“I think we have some options there ... it's really a nickel league now,” Gutekunst said. “I think really the two safeties and nickel spots really kind of in flux, and we're gonna work through that as we go.”
They began working through it in Indianapolis this week, evaluating prospects at the NFL scouting combine. The defensive back class, both safeties and corners, is deep overall, with mid-round options that can be game-changers. But with the Packers owning the No. 15 overall pick in the first round and No. 46 in the second round, could safety be one of the first positions on their board?
If so, here are two of the top five safeties in the upcoming draft class.
Brian Branch (Alabama)
What makes him special: Branch is a consensus top safety in this year's draft and arguably the best tackler. After games at Alabama, Branch said, he would fire up the tape and watch all of his missed tackles. What went wrong? Did he misread something? He’d study it for hours.
“(Missed tackles) burn a lot,” Branch told reporters Thursday. “After a game, I'll watch the film for the next three days. Seeing that, I know I'm better than that. So it's like, it hurts a lot, and it’s stuff that I can't get back. I just have to look forward and do better.”
According to Pro Football Focus, of Branch’s 173 career tackle attempts, he missed only four.
“When I take the field, it's almost like I'm allowed to release a sort of anger,” Branch said, “legal anger that I can't do on everyday basis, but when I get on the field and able to make contact with the opposing team.
"Doing that just makes me like be able to express myself and just have fun really, so like I just have mentality of I can't lapse. I have to do my job and can't let the opposing team do a better job than I do.”
What he could bring to the Packers: Branch can be a smothering cover guy. But for a team that was haunted by missed tackles this season, Branch could make an immediate impact. After playing in the slot the majority of his career, he’s fearless in coming into the box to fill run gaps. It also gives him easy access to the backfield.
“Knowing that (the Packers) play man a lot, I like that. I talked to them about blitzing and I feel like this scheme, I could fit perfect into that scheme as well 'cause I can guard the slot,” Branch said. “And just getting a connection with the coaching staff, getting a feel for them, I like their staff a lot.”
Interaction with the Packers: Branch told PackersNews he had a formal interview with the Packers. Branch could easily be a top-10 pick, but working in Green Bay’s favor are a lot of quarterback- and offense-needy teams ahead of them. Then again, the Packers are needy on that side of the ball as well. But Gutekunst has shown he’s more than willing to use his first-round picks on defensive starters, and Branch could be as plug-and-play as they come.
Measurables: 6-0, 193 pounds
Sydney Brown (Illinois)
What makes him special: The native of Canada may have been playing American football for only the past few years, but his natural athletic ability and MMA boxing background made him a natural safety. He’s PFF’s fifth-ranked safety in this draft class, thanks to a combination of speed and power that brings an incredibly versatile skill set to the table. According to PFF, Brown played 92% of snaps his last season at Illinois in the box. But the kid who got his start in sports on the ice can skate, making him an intriguing free safety as well.
"I've got the confidence to play in the slot. I think I've got the technique to do that as well," Brown told reporters Thursday. "I don't shy away from anything that the coaches have for me. Whatever team makes the investment in me, I'm going to be willing to do whatever they need. If that's on special teams, if that's to play slot corner, if that's to play the boundary, the free (safety), shoot, if they wanted me to play corner I'll do whatever."
Brown admittedly entered college knowing only how to play Cover 1 defense. His time at Illinois helped accelerate his knowledge of the game, and while there are still things to learn, his intelligence earned him play-calling duties. That's a job typically reserved for middle linebackers, but coaches entrusted Brown to be the quarterback of the defense. It not only allowed him to learn the entire defense but also to roam, using instincts to go where needed.
What he could bring to the Packers: Brown finished his final year at Illinois tied for third in the nation in interceptions with six, a number that tied for first among players at Power 5 schools. He returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns, while averaging 4.9 tackles per game. This Packers defense is predicated on causing turnovers.
"It's my ability to react to what I see and just trust what my eyes are telling me," Brown said. "I think there's an instinct that I have, that I just trigger on things."
Interaction with the Packers: Brown told PackersNews he had both a formal and informal meeting with the Packers staff. "It was mainly just about scheme, trying and get to know you," Brown said of the meeting. "They've got tape on you already, right. So they just try and test you on a few things." Brown is likely a Day 2 pick, where the Packers own the No. 46 (second round) and No. 79 (third round) picks overall.
Measurables: 6-0, 205 pounds