Dougherty: Packers find safety in numbers

Pete Dougherty
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The Green Bay Packers’ 53-man roster is a sign of the times in the NFL.

Getty Images
Marwin Evans (25) of the Green Bay Packers intercepts a pass jumping in front of DiAndre Campbell (19) of the San Francisco 49ers at Levi?s Stadium on Friday.
SANTA CLARA, CA - AUGUST 26:  Defensive back Marwin Evans #25 of the Green Bay Packers intercepts a pass jumping in front of wide receiver DiAndre Campbell #19 of the San Francisco 49ers in the second half of their preseason football game at Levi's Stadium on August 26, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

I’m talking about general manager Ted Thompson’s and coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to keep 12 defensive backs – six cornerbacks and six safeties – when they set their team last weekend.

That number is down to 11 after undrafted rookie cornerback Makinton Dorleant went on injured reserve Monday. But he made the initial 53 and now is eligible to return this season if the Packers so choose.

The point is, as rules continue to favor spread passing games, defenses have to respond. And the Packers’ response has been to load up on defensive backs. They’ve drafted three (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins) with high picks the last three drafts, and now they’ve kept 12 players where in recent seasons the norm has been 10.

“Guys get hurt, it’s a long season,” said Micah Hyde, who is a cornerback and safety. “You have to have (defensive backs) that can come in and play well.”

The game has been evolving this way for years. But maybe the most interesting part for the Packers is the decision to keep the six safeties, all of whom are on the final 53 as the team begins preparation for the Jacksonville Jaguars this week.

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The Packers actually aren’t the only team to have done so. Buffalo and the New England kept six as well. Regardless, at first blush, it’s hard to see why a team would keep six safeties, because it’s hard to get that many on the field. Cornerbacks, sure, because four play in the dime. Two injuries and the sixth corner is getting at least a few snaps a game.

But safeties generally play two at a time. Yet the Packers kept two undrafted players as their Nos. 5 and 6 safeties, Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans, while going uncommonly light at inside linebacker (three) and defensive line (four). And that’s because Thompson didn’t want to risk exposing either of the rookies on the waiver wire in an attempt to get them to the practice squad.

Even as recently as five years ago, I think Thompson would have rolled the dice with one (Evans) and hoped he made it through. But the safety position appears to be making a comeback in the NFL, because so much is asked of it against spread offenses that are expert at identifying and exploiting coverage mismatches.

“Particularly with some of the rule changes, you need playmakers, athletes, back there,” McCarthy said. “Our safety position, keeping six safeties, those guys earned it.”

The evolution of NFL safeties remains in the works. The latest change has been happening over the past couple years, with bigger safeties such as Arizona’s Deone Bucannon (6-1, 220) and the Los Angeles Rams’ Mark Barron (6-2, 213) essentially changing positions and becoming undersized linebackers to better match up with running backs and tight ends in pass coverage.

Atlanta drafted Keanu Neal (6-0, 211 pounds) in the first round and Washington took Su’a Cravens (6-1, 226) in the second round this year for similar roles.

The Packers dabbled with that in training camp as well by occasionally playing Morgan Burnett (6-1, 209) at linebacker. But they never showed it in a preseason game, so it’s unclear whether defensive coordinator Dom Capers will use it much in his weekly game plans. Regardless, that’s the way the game seems to be heading. Five years from now, it might be the norm.

In the meantime, while the Packers will look to Brice and Evans for immediate help on special teams, the larger question is how much the two will develop over the next couple years.

Thompson was caught short at safety in 2013 after he cut the aging Charles Woodson only to have M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian bomb as his replacement. Brice and Evans are hedges against that happening again with the possible personnel losses over the next couple years.

Hyde, the No. 3 safety, will be an unrestricted free agent when his rookie contract runs out after this season. Burnett, the starter opposite Clinton-Dix, has two years left on his deal and will be 29 when he’s a free agent in 2018. Either or both could return, but that’s hardly a given and will depend in part on how much Brice and Evans grow.

Maybe either or both rookies will develop over the next year or two and be ready for a bigger role. Maybe one or the other will make the big jump and become a starter down the road. Even if nobody is betting on it now, they at least have shown enough to think it’s a possibility. That’s why they’re still around.

Pete and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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