Secondary turns to Burnett after offseason departures
There was more than 300 games of regular-season experience missing from the Green Bay Packers' secondary when the team started its offseason program on Monday.
Tramon Williams is in Cleveland. Jarrett Bush remains unsigned. Throw in Davon House's departure to Jacksonville and you get an idea for what the Packers have to replace this offseason in both productivity and knowledge of Dom Capers' defense.
That's where Morgan Burnett comes in. The former third-round pick has been a reliable member of the secondary for five years now. His respect in the locker room is reflected in his selection as a playoff captain in each of the last two seasons.
Often times experience is overrated in the NFL. As players get older, new blood is required to keep teams vibrant. However, Williams' exit felt a little different than most. The 32-year-old cornerback still had a lot to offer, which is why the Browns gave him a three-year, $21 million contract last month.
New leaders must emerge and Burnett is a logical choice. After all, it's a role he's seemingly been groomed for the last few years.
"He's going to be missed," said Burnett on Monday. "He was like a big brother to us all — not just with what his play was on the field but just the way he carried himself as a professional off of the field. A lot of guys respected him for that. A lot of guys are looking forward to stepping up and it's going to be a fun year."
Change is customary in the NFL, but the Packers have shed a lot of veterans the last two years. It started last offseason with the exit of defensive linemen Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly. This year, the Packers bid farewell to inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones before losing out on the race to retain Williams.
Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward could be possible replacements for Williams as a starting boundary cornerback, along with whoever might be added in the NFL draft. What will be more challenging to duplicate is Williams' presence in the locker room. A soft-spoken yet eloquent speaker, Williams often set the tone for the defense with his words.
A former practice-squad player, Williams was at the forefront of developing a self-made culture in the Packers' secondary, setting the path for another undrafted free agents like Sam Shields, Jumal Rolle, Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo to become unsung success stories.
Williams' departure means the training wheels are off for the rest of the cornerbacks, but Burnett sees promise in their potential.
"I'm very confident," said Burnett about the remaining cornerbacks. "The guys that were here that left, we're going to miss those guys; just the brotherhood that we had with those men. But that's what the NFL's about. It's about the next man up making the most of your opportunity, and I'm pretty sure that guys are excited and ready to step up and prove themselves — including myself. I have to step up."
Despite the losses at cornerback, the Packers' safety position never has been stronger in the post-Nick Collins era. Burnett bounced back from a down year in 2013 with a career-high 130 tackles, 1½ sacks and an interception.
First-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix showed promise as a rookie and shined in the NFC title game with two interceptions of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. Richardson was also retained after the Packers matched the one-year, $2.55 million offer sheet he previously signed with Oakland.
Burnett, who turned 26 in January, still is looking to improve his own game. He worked on his quickness during the offseason in addition to his usual distance running. Back in Green Bay, the next few months are about improvement.
"It's exciting to get back around the football environment, around the guys in the locker room," Burnett said. "I want to continue to improve and get better — get better physically, mentally, improve as a leader and do my job and be accountable on the defensive side of the ball."
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