Deep Draft Class Could End Safety Dance
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Deep Draft Class Could End Safety Dance

Over the past five seasons, the Packers have churned through about 12 combinations at safety. This year's draft features about a dozen players who are worthy of going in the first four rounds and, according to one GM, could generate five or six starters.

In 2008, the Green Bay Packers lined up with Nick Collins and Atari Bigby as their starting safeties, though Bigby played in only seven games and was replaced by Aaron Rouse, among others.

In 2009, the Packers lined up with Collins and Bigby again, though Bigby started 11 games and was replaced by Rouse, Derrick Martin and even linebacker Brandon Chillar.

In 2010, the Packers trotted out Collins and Morgan Burnett, though Burnett's rookie season ended after four games and he was replaced by Charlie Peprah.

In 2011, the Packers rolled out Collins and Burnett, until Collins' career ended in Week 2, when he was replaced by Peprah.

In 2012, the Packers started with Burnett and Charles Woodson, until Woodson broke his collarbone in Week 7 and was replaced by a combination of M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian.

That's a lot of safety shuffling.

Fortunately for the Packers, there is a treasure trove of safety talent at this week's Scouting Combine here at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"When I look at it, there are a number of corners in this draft class that can play and they can help teams as a one, two or three," Bears general manager Phil Emery said on Thursday. "I would say that's a strength. There's a strong safety class. In our minds, there are five or six starters in this class at safety and that's rare to me."

The need is there for the Packers. They've released Charles Woodson, and neither second-year player Jennings nor fourth-round pick McMillian distinguished himself as the player lining up opposite Morgan Burnett. Jennings made 10 starts, with one interception and six passes defensed. McMillian didn't start any games but settled into the dime role with Woodson's injury. He had one interception and tied for fourth on the team with 13 passes defensed. Jennings is as steady as they come but isn't physical enough, and McMillian had a problem making the jump from small-school Maine to the bright lights of the NFL but has plenty of upside.

"I thought McMillian was a splash player at times," coach Mike McCarthy said on Friday. "For a young guy, he was inconsistent, especially on special teams, but I really like his skill-set. I like his work ethic. He has some toughness. He has the ability to make impact plays. M.D., I thought definitely took a big step moving forward. He needs to get stronger. At the end of the day, he graded out probably a little bit higher than I would have thought. I think it will be an excellent group. The most important part of both of those guys is they have a lot of growth in front of them."

There are perhaps a dozen safeties worthy of going in the first three or four rounds, with Texas All-American Kenny Vaccaro (6-0, 214) being a potential top-20 pick and the only one probably out of the Packers' reach.

"I played both safeties, strong and free. I played nickel. I played dime. In some instances I played corner," Vaccaro said in stating his case to be No. 1 at the position.

Florida International's Jonathan Cyrpien, Florida's Matt Elam, LSU's Eric Reid and Fresno State's underrated Phillip Thomas form a relatively clear second tier, with Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson, Georgia's Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams a notch below, and South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger, USC's T.J. McDonald, Georgia Southern's J.J. Wilcox and Notre Dame's Zeke Motta hoping to use their Combine and their pro days to move up boards and into Day 2 of the draft.

Most of them took turns proclaiming themselves the best safety in the draft while addressing reporters at the podium that hosted the Manti Te'o circus on Saturday.

"My physicality," Elam (5-10, 208), the brother of veteran safety Abram Elam, said while rattling off the strengths of his game. "I play very hard. I love to strike people. I feel that what helps me stand out the most is I'm very versatile. I can cover the slot receivers, I can go down and cover, I can go in the box and tackle. I can play in the post."

Cyprien (6-0, 217), who earned his degree in 3.5 years, made a name for himself with his physical, athletic style at the Senior Bowl. As with Elam, he played free and strong safety as well as the nickel and dime slots.

"I think I'm the No. 1 guy because I can bring a lot to a team," he said. "I can contribute to a team winning games by making plays when called (upon), leadership. I can come in and say it all I want but, when I have that opportunity, I just want to shine and do what I have to do to prove that I am."

Jefferson (5-11, 213) is an early entrant, a second-team All-American and academic all-conference selection who again is comfortable at the box and in centerfield, though his 18 career tackles for losses and two interceptions indicate his best spot.

"I like being in the box a lot," he said. "But being deep is pretty cool, too. You get to get those overthrown balls and big hits and stuff like that."

The wild card is Wilcox (6-0, 213). He spent his first three seasons on offense. Playing slot back as a sophomore and junior, he averaged 25.0 yards per reception in 2010, 9.2 yards per rush in 2011 and 17 touchdowns during those two seasons. When the team needed help on defense this past season, it turned to Wilcox. To help make the move, he looked at Charles Woodson, who Wilcox called a "role model" as he learned defensive football.

"The sky's the limit for me," Wilcox said. "I'm definitely on the incline. I can always improve my game. In this one year, I progressed more and more and more. I don't think my potential has reached its peak yet. I'm anxious to get in the NFL and show what I can do."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.