Despite uncertainty, the Packers are pleased with options for their starting safety competition

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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GREEN BAY – At the onset of the Green Bay Packers voluntary spring practices, safeties coach Ryan Downard gathered his players in a meeting this week, and made sure they knew the stakes.

There is at least one starting job available on the back end of the Packers defense. Darnell Savage, the incumbent who has played more than 3,500 snaps since arriving as a first-round pick in the 2019 draft, figures to fill the other spot. But he has plenty to prove, too, after being temporarily benched late last season.

“I like where our safety room is in terms of the competition right now,” Downard said. “There’s an opening there, and there’s only one guy in the room who’s played a ton of snaps for us. So I actually addressed the guys yesterday, ‘Hey, you guys have to be pros about this. Everybody in this room is trying to get a job. So it’s full competition when we go on the practice field, but we’ve also got to have each other’s back. Once we make that decision on who’s going, we have to be there to support each other.’

“So I’m encouraging the competition. I think it brings out the best.”

Packers safety Darnell Savage intercepts a pass and returns it for a touchdown.

Defensive coordinator Joe Barry was candid when speaking about the safety competition this week, acknowledging he doesn’t know who will start. It’s the middle of May. Still early. Greg Williams, the Packers new defensive passing-game coordinator, said the competition could go all the way to the start of Week 1, when the Packers open their season with a trip to the Chicago Bears.

The secondary is much more secure at cornerback, even with Eric Stokes’ uncertain timeline from a significant leg injury that cost him the second half of last season. Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas are expected to line up on the perimeter, and Barry said he’s encouraged with Keisean Nixon’s 289 snaps last season, most of which came in the slot. Whenever Stokes returns, he’ll have to earn whatever snaps he gets.

With a more complete safety depth chart, the same might have been true for Savage. It wasn’t until the Packers moved Savage to the slot midway through last season that he started to play better. Returning to safety, simply to compensate for the lack of other options, might not be ideal.

Downard said Savage has made plays in the post, a deep area in the middle of the field required for safeties to cover. He’s working with Savage on being a better tackler and more physical taking on blocks, integral to the safety position. The Packers, Downard said, believe Savage’s athleticism gives him the potential to control the middle of the field.

He’s the fastest player on the Packers defense, running the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine even quicker than Alexander, with plenty of speed for him to be a rangy safety.

“I think Darnell is best when he pulls the trigger,” Downard said, “and he lets it all hang out, personally, and I’ve had that talk with him. You see that if you watch his Maryland tape. I mean, he is going to get it now. He’s got to trust himself.”

Savage is in a rare position where he’ll likely assume a leadership role at the safety position with veteran Adrian Amos no longer with the team, even as he tries to solidify his career. The Packers will give him every chance to do that, because there is little choice.

Their more pressing need is determining which safety will line up next to Savage.

“I’d like to have a two-way safety,” Downard said. “What I mean by that is a guy that can cover, and a guy that can tackle. If you can thump, if you bring power on contact, that’s a bonus. But I’ve got to be able to get guys on the ground. So tackling is a premium. Obviously, coverage and taking the ball away is a premium. If we’ve got two of those guys who can do both, then we can play them left and right. If we have a guy whose skillset is more anchored toward tackling or physicality to his game, then we might play him to the boundary, and the other guy in the field.

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“So we’ve got to see who’s going to be that guy.”

Safety is the one position the Packers added outside free agents this offseason. With a weak safety class entering the draft, general manager Brian Gutekunst chose not to select a safety until the seventh round, when he picked Iowa State’s Anthony Johnson Jr. As a rookie, Johnson figures to play primarily on special teams.

Here’s a look at three candidates who could win the starting job.

Packers safety Rudy Ford celebrates during overtime against the Patriots.

Rudy Ford

Considering Ford didn’t arrive in Green Bay until the final day of August, claimed after the Jacksonville Jaguars released him in their camp cutdown, the Packers likely got more from the veteran last season than expected.

They claimed Ford to be a primary special teams player. Gutekunst called him one of the NFL’s best gunners on punt coverage. Ford eventually played 442 snaps on defense, making six starts, and is the Packers top internal candidate to win the starting competition this offseason.

“Last year was tough on Rudy,” Downard said, “because he came in so late. And that’s part of the NFL. So we got him up to speed as fast as we could, but I can’t wait to see his progression now that he’s had a full offseason. He’s been here every single day. He comes and seeks me out to see extra. So we’ve been watching film just to get him to learn and really nail down the details of each technique.

“So I think he’s going to be way ahead of where he was last year just understanding and being able to execute those techniques.”

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Ford eventually lost his starting job to Savage late in the season. He was responsible for a pair of long receptions against the Miami Dolphins, finding himself out of position to blow coverage. Downard said he’s working with Ford to be surer of his play calls on the field, a primary responsibility for safeties, who serve as a quarterback on the defense.

In his six NFL seasons, Ford never played as regularly on defense as he did last year. The former sixth-round draft pick ran a 4.4 40 at his pro day entering the 2017 draft. Downard said Ford has the athletic traits to play the position.

“What I saw from Rudy, as I think you guys probably all saw,” Downard said, “is he’s got real speed. I saw that on the field, I saw that in practice. He’s got the ability to tackle and contact ball carriers. Which, like I just said, is a premium.”

San Francisco safety Tarvarius Moore tries to tackle Green Bay running back Tremon Smith.

Tarvarius Moore

Signed as a free agent in March, Moore’s 13 career starts in four seasons are one more than Ford has in his career.

That doesn’t mean Moore has ever been a regular defensive player. He played 540 snaps in eight starts during the 2020 season. After missing all of 2021 with a torn Achilles, the San Francisco 49ers signed free-agent safety Tashaun Gipson. Moore’s playing time decreased to 41 snaps in 13 games last season.

Downard described Moore as “willing and eager,” unsurprising given his past couple of seasons.

“He has some coverage skill,” Downard said, “and he does have some power on contact, too, which I saw when I viewed him as a free agent. Obviously, I think athletically when he came out, he was top notch. He had some top-end speed (ran a 4.32 40 before the 2018 draft). I know he’s dealt with some injuries in the past, but he’s been in some good schemes.

“He knows how to play hard. I think he understands what the standard needs to be, but he adds a good element to our room. Especially since we’re in this phase right now where there’s some youth and some competition.”

Houston safety Jonathan Owens warms up before a game against Indianapolis.

Jonathan Owens

The newest addition to the Packers safety depth chart.

“It’s been about 24 hours,” Downard said.

The Packers signed Owens as a free agent Friday. Like with Moore, Downard watched film of Owens this spring, knowing the fifth-year veteran was on Gutekunst’s radar. Owens started all 17 games for the Houston Texans last season, making him the most seasoned candidate for the Packers’ starting job.

Recently married to four-time Olympic gold-medal gymnast Simone Biles, Owens might not be the best athlete in his family. He’s plenty athletic to be an NFL safety. Owens ran a 4.36 40 at the NFL scouting combine in 2019, matching Savage. Downard said Owens’ best attribute is his tackling, seen with 125 tackles last season, second most on the Texans defense.

“He’s very eager,” Downard said. “He obviously has some skill. Looking back at my report once we signed him, I think he played like 960 snaps last year. It was his first year of really getting a ton of snaps, which we discussed. He’s had a long journey, but he’s a good football mind.”

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