Morgan Burnett had a solid third season but the Packers are looking for more.
Burnett finished second on the team with 137 tackles, five off of A.J. Hawk's team-leading pace, and had double-digits tackles in five games. Burnett was the only player on the defense with a sack (two), interception (two), fumble recovery (one) and forced fumble (one). According to ProFootballFocus.com, Burnett tied for fourth among safeties with 22 run stops, defined as a solo tackle that results in a failure by the offensive team (such as holding a first-and-10 run to 3 yards or less). He also finished 13th out of 58 safeties in PFF's tackling efficiency.
Still, the Packers need more from their former third-round pick. It's unfair to compare Burnett to Nick Collins, but the Packers have missed Collins' playmaking ability. In 36 career regular-season games (all starts), Burnett has six interceptions. Collins had seven in 2008 and six in 2009.
"He's still a young player," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "Productivity, I think the numbers speak for themselves — 100-and-some tackles and two years in a row didn't miss a snap. Durability, consistency — I think that says a lot about the type of player he is. He's still young and I think his potential still hasn't been reached. I think he has a chance to be a really good football player. The mental aspect was so much better than last year in terms of communicating and commanding the defense, particularly with (Charles Woodson) out there and another new guy in Jerron (McMillian) and M.D. (Jennings). He took on that leadership role and he did a good job at that. We just need to keep him growing in the right direction because we feel he can be one of our impact players on defense."
Rest of the depth chart
Burnett and Charles Woodson were the starting safeties, with M.D. Jennings getting most of the work when Woodson moved to nickel or was out with a broken collarbone.
Woodson returned an interception for a touchdown in each of the past six seasons and ranked second in NFL history with 11 pick-sixes. He had just one interception this season, when he missed the final nine regular-season games with a broken collarbone. He was on pace for 101 tackles, which would have been the second-most of his career. He might have lost a step but he missed just three tackles.
Jennings is an excellent athlete and typically played the centerfield role with Burnett closer to the line of scrimmage. He finished ninth with 46 tackles, broke up five passes and had the defense's only touchdown off of an interception with his 72-yard return against Detroit.
"He had a solid year," Perry said. "I could count on my hands the number of snaps he played in our defensive packages (as a rookie last year). To come in and play over 600 snaps shows his growth. He got off to a slow start in the San Francisco game (in Week 1) and we were alternating him and Jerron and trying to find that mix. After his slow start, I think he did a solid job coming in and being productive for us.
McMillian, a rookie fourth-round pick, played extensively in Weeks 2 through 5 before giving way to Jennings, then settled into the dime role with Woodson out. Playing almost as many snaps as Jennings (617-614), McMillian had 30 tackles and broke up 12 passes. He had an interception in Week 2 against Chicago and another in Week 3 at Seattle, though that was taken away by an iffy roughing-the-passer call. With his speed and hitting ability, he'll be in the running to start next year.
Undrafted rookie Sean Richardson, an intriguing prospect with his size and speed, had one tackle on defense and four stops on special teams.
C-plus: The safeties had a solid season, but that's what they were: solid. The tackling was good and communication errors weren't a major issue. But the big plays were few and far between. Burnett (two), Jennings (one), McMillian (one) and Woodson (one) combined for five interceptions, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Even the much-maligned Charlie Peprah had five interceptions last season, and the position group combined for eight interceptions, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
What's the future for Woodson? After a so-so divisional playoff game, a high cap charge and some young talent, his spot on the roster is in jeopardy, even though Perry questioned why "anyone would question" Woodson's ability.
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.