Packers Take Another Chance on FCS Safety

Seven years ago in the NFL Draft, Packers general manager Ted Thompson "reached" on a relatively unknown safety that ended up having a pretty good career. He's hoping the same happens with a similar pick Saturday.

The Green Bay Packers took a step toward rebuilding their safety position, sans Nick Collins, on Saturday at the NFL Draft.

Using the second of their two fourth-round compensatory selections (No. 133 overall), they took Jerron McMillian, a player with a similar collegiate resume to Collins, whom the Packers released just four days ago due to long-term concerns about a neck injury suffered in 2011.

McMillian, from FCS-school Maine, made the most of his draft stock after some projections had him going undrafted. But the Packers have had their eyes on him for some time. Last week, they brought him to Green Bay for a personal visit, where he met with safeties coach Darren Perry among others.

"He's a very bright young man," said Perry, "When he came in, one of the things that stood out was his intelligence. He has a very high football IQ, not that it's going to be easy, I think, for any rookie coming into this system. It's going to be a challenge, and that's one of the things that we put up high in terms of our evaluation. … It's going to be a learning curve and it will be a tremendous challenge for us to get him ready to play. I think he'll be up for it."

Packers northeast scout Lee Gissendaner did the leg work on McMillian, who was an accomplished three-year starter in college but faced long odds coming out of an FCS school. As Packer Report detailed in an April 19 story, McMillian opened some eyes, however, at the Scouting Combine, where the fruits of his performance there manifested itself into becoming a draft pick Saturday.

After just being happy to be invited to Indianapolis, the 5-foot-11, 203-pound McMillian led all safeties with a 40 time of 4.47, a 10-yard split of 1.51, and a vertical leap of 36.5 inches. At his pro day, according to a league source, ran his 40 in 4.35 seconds with a 39-inch vertical leap.

As convincing as his physical workouts were, the Packers saw things they liked in other areas as well.

"When you put the video on with this guy, he was always around the football," said Perry. "Tremendous effort. Some of the things they do are very similar to what we do scheme-wise. Just visiting with him and talking technique, I don't think he'll have a problem coming in and picking up and doing some of the things we'll ask him to do."

"He has the qualities we look for in a safety," added defensive coordinator Dom Capers. "No. 1, he can run, and No. 2, he's a very aggressive player. You see him throw his body around. We think he could go either way – he could play either strong or free, which is something we're always looking for, guys that have the type of movement skills in this day and age where if they have to go down and cover a wide receiver that he would have those types of capabilities."

The Packers are convinced McMillian is more than a one-dimensional player, which some scouting reports detail. While he has traits that make him strong against the run (he had 19.5 tackles for losses in his career) and as a blitzer (3.5 sacks in 2011), the Packers think he can cover the field as well. He had nine career interceptions.

"If you had to play him deep, he could play deep and go get the ball," said Capers, "and if you brought him down to play the run, he went after the run and showed the kind of quickness and speed that we like to have."

Added general manager Ted Thompson, "We watched games where they were playing predominantly run teams and we watched him games where they were playing predominantly passing and he shows very good versatility. He looks good in center field. He's aggressive and physical coming up in support and we felt like he'd be a good addition."

McMillian joins a Packers safety group in transition. For years, the Packers relied heavily on Collins' ability to cover ground. They suffered without him over the last 14 games in 2011, posting the league's worst defense (based on passing yards allowed). Outside of Morgan Burnett, they have no sure thing among the group. Charlie Peprah, who took over in the absence of Collins in 2011, fell way off his steady pace of 2010. Others competing will be second-year player M.D. Jennings and former practice squad player Anthony Levine. They have no other true safeties on the roster, though Charles Woodson might be under consideration for a position switch and Jarrett Bush can play safety in a pinch.

McMillian, who has followed Collins' career and knows his background as a small-school success story out of Bethune-Cookman, knows he at least has a shot to start. When asked Saturday afternoon if he thinks he could do so as a rookie he said, "I don't want to say I can, I don't want to say I can't. But I'll work as hard as I can to get that opportunity."

For now, the Packers hope they have found a diamond in the rough, just like they did in 2005 with Collins.

"Sometimes in certain areas of the country, not say at a BCS-type school, you can kind of get lost and I think maybe he was lost a little bit," said Thompson of McMillian. "We were very impressed with him personally when we sat and talked with him. And he brings a certain dynamic to the field. You felt his presence when you watch tape on him."

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