GREEN BAY - Not long ago, the Green Bay Packers were compelled to start M.D. Jennings at free safety for two seasons and Charlie Peprah at strong safety for two seasons.
Today, they wouldn’t come close to making the team.
The ascension of Louisiana Tech’s Kentrell Brice and Utah State’s Marwin Evans from the rookie free-agent ranks has given the Packers not two or three but six viable options at safety. Any team in the league that isn’t aware of it will be after watching tape of Green Bay’s 21-10 exhibition victory over San Francisco on Friday night at Levi’s Stadium.
A personnel man for one team said he’d recommend claiming Brice on waivers if the Packers released him. He made that statement before Brice looked like the best player on the field against the 49ers in his third straight ultra-impressive showing.
The Packers aren’t cutting Brice. It would be akin to releasing a first- or second-round draft choice. That’s about the level at which Brice has performed.
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It’s entirely possible they won’t waive Evans, either. The Packers kept Sean Richardson around for four years hoping he’d be their new-wave hybrid safety. Not only couldn’t Richardson stay on the field, he couldn’t begin to move in space like Evans, the Milwaukee native who was a cornerback in his first three years of college football.
Brice, 5 feet 11½ inches and 199 pounds, played 19 snaps from scrimmage and a team-high 19 snaps in the kicking game.
On defense, Brice delivered a stiff hit on Carlos Hyde before coming from deep to lay a withering shot on tight end Blake Bell.
On special teams, Brice used his 4.43 speed to outrun safety L.J. McCray for a jarring tackle on the Packers’ second kickoff. He also made heavy sticks on a punt return and another kickoff return.
For the first time, Brice played like a bona fide head-hunter. Twice, however, he didn’t get so carried away that he lost focus. Buzzing the sidelines, he aborted a head-long dive to avoid a penalty. He displayed that same mature approach pulling off Colin Kaepernick as the scrambling quarterback went out of bounds.
The fact that Brice started on the kickoff team just to the left of Mason Crosby indicated the Packers have major plans for him.
Evans played most of the second half. Unlike the Oakland game, he showed up more in the middle of the field than in the box from where he waylaid the Raiders’ running game.
Just as Brice did earlier, Evans closed hard and fast after a reception by Bell to deliver a punishing tackle. Then he read a sideline pattern from somewhere near the hash mark and used his 4.47 speed to sprint for the boundary and make an eye-popping interception.
Evans is almost as off-the-charts athletically as Brice but is bigger at 5-11½, 208. He still looks like the perfect candidate to groom as a hybrid safety because of his size, speed and instincts. Based on the past five weeks, he probably should have been drafted in the third or fourth round.
Jermaine Whitehead, another free-agent safety, isn’t bad, either. He just can’t measure up to Brice and Evans. Few rookie safeties can.
Chris Banjo, the team’s best special-teams player and a favorite of the coaching staff, now can’t be assured of a job in Green Bay. The hamstring injury that he suffered covering a second-quarter punt might be a factor. Micah Hyde, once regarded as almost a lock, still should make the team, but he can’t take anything for granted anymore, either.
On the outside
Let’s assume Sam Shields, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter remain the big four at cornerback. I’d still have Demetri
Goodson fifth, but he’s facing a month-long suspension to open the season.
When practice began July 26, the next three, in order, looked to be Robertson Daniel, Makinton Dorleant and Josh Hawkins. Now, depending on the pulled hamstring that Dorleant aggravated Friday night, it seems to be Hawkins, Dorleant and Daniel.
Daniel has the size (6-1, 203) every team covets but hasn’t made nearly the number of plays as the other two. He might lack top awareness and, because he’s somewhat high-cut, a degree of quickness.
Hawkins has been getting after veteran wide receivers from the day he walked in the door. He gets better each week in press-man coverage but also seems reliable in zone because of the defense that he played in at East Carolina.
Because of his 4.39 speed, Hawkins doesn’t sweat getting in people’s faces. If he misses a jam, it’s a comfortable feeling knowing you have the burst to catch up. It’s how Hawkins has played.
Dorleant has played just 25 snaps compared to 58 for Hawkins and 52 for Daniels. However, in the 12 Dorleant made it through Friday night before going down, he displayed a ball-hawking nerve and savvy that was somewhat reminiscent of Casey Hayward.
Hawkins and Dorleant both stand 5-10½ and run 4.39, but Dorleant isn’t as thick. Each also played prominent early roles on special teams before Daniel.
The Packers kept 11 defensive backs last year and in 2012. They’ve never kept 12 but that’s not out of the realm of possibility given the talent difference there compared to quarterback, tight end and defensive line.
Thin up front
When Letroy Guion is a team’s second-best defensive lineman, there’s a problem. When Dean Lowry is a team’s fourth-best, something probably should be done.
Mike Pennel has had the third-best summer but is heading for a four-game suspension.
Rookie Kenny Clark’s back injury led the coaches to keep him home and presumably off his feet. Clark didn’t do much in the first two games, but with his serious bearing and good strength he should contribute.
Lowry lines up a foot or two off the ball, almost like Tom Landry’s big men in Dallas once did in the Flex Defense. More to the point, Lowry isn’t getting off blocks and making much happen.
With teams playing less and less base personnel, the Packers usually need just two big men on the field. Julius Peppers looked awful in his exhibition debut Friday night but projects as a fixture inside on passing downs. The Packers even played linebackers Datone Jones and Reggie Gilbert for a snap apiece at 5-technique in the 3-4 defense just to prepare them for potential emergency roles ahead.
Christian Ringo was the beneficiary of the efforts of three teammates for his sack. He also shed a blocker nicely and made a tackle late, but several times either was caved in or knocked down against the run.
None of the three free-agent rookies has made a case for being retained. It would help the Packers a ton if one of those prized rookies in the secondary happened to be a defensive lineman.
If Clark’s back issues are serious, general manager Ted Thompson almost has to phone B.J. Raji or acquire a veteran through trade or waivers.
Rookie Beniquez Brown played himself out of contention at inside linebacker with several missed tackles. Blake Martinez, Sam Barrington and Carl Bradford all held serve.
With Jake Ryan appearing to be close to returning from a pulled hamstring, the final part of the puzzle could be Joe Thomas’ shin. He appeared to be neck-and-neck with Bradford.
Kyler Fackrell, a third-round pick, solidified his grip on the fifth berth at outside linebacker by turning in easily his sharpest showing. Three of his four pressures, in a defense-high 30 snaps, came against left tackle Dennis Kelly, a 10-game starter for the Eagles in 2012 whom the 49ers acquired in a trade Aug. 16. He found success slashing inside.
The Packers weren’t going to cut Fackrell because of his draft status. Strength development remains a necessity, but at least in games has shown a knack for rushing and overall tenacity.
Hard-charging Lerentee McCray might be a better player than Fackrell right now but could have reached his ceiling. Gilbert probably isn’t as gifted as Fackrell but he can rush, too.
Jayrone Elliott’s hamstring injury complicates the situation.