Leader of the Pack
Morgan Burnett: It's a bit of a strange place to put Burnett. To be sure, he is the leader of the safeties pack by default as the only sure-fire starter. Statistically, Burnett had a solid first full season as a starter – especially considering he played much of the season with a cast over a broken hand. He tallied 107 sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
However, his allowed five touchdowns – third-most among safeties, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He needs to have more of a take-charge presence in the secondary, especially if he winds up being paired with one of the young guys. In other words, he needs to be the leader of the safety pack.
"Leadership. Being the true quarterback, true take-charge guy," safeties coach Darren Perry said when asked about the next step in Burnett's career. "Consistency, which is something he should feel real good about coming into this year having the experience under his belt, being healthy, having both hands. Just having a better understanding of this defense and call command and relaying our checks to the remainder of our defense will only get better. He's really stepped up in that area. These meetings we (had during the offseason) are invaluable to those guys. You don't have time during training camp and during the season to explain why. They just have to learn it. His athleticism stands out clearly in a lot of things he does. I'm excited about where this guy can go. I think he's going to be a heck of a football player."
M.D. Jennings: As an undrafted rookie, Jennings finished among the team leaders with nine tackles on special teams. With Charlie Peprah sitting out the offseason practices after minor knee surgery, Jennings got the first-team reps throughout the OTAs and minicamp. He didn't look out of place but the live bullets of training camp and the preseason will determine whether he's truly ready for prime-time. Can he tackle Adrian Peterson or a 245-pound tight end? Can he get himself and his teammates in position when a quarterback audibles at the last second?
"It'll be interesting to see how this thing shakes out," Perry said. "I tell you, I feel a lot better seeing them practice now as opposed to the end of the season, looking on our roster and knowing Nick's situation and so forth. I feel a lot better now, seeing the little strides that the young guys like M.D. have made up to this point. Competition brings out the best. The end of the season, M.D.'s barely wearing 190 pounds. If you're talking about him being your strong safety, you'd like to see him get a little bit bigger, put on some weight, but yet keep his speed. Seeing little things like that are pleasing and exciting for a coach. I think guys see the opportunity. There'll be some battles, and they'll have to be won in training camp."
Micah Pellerin: Pellerin was one of the top ballhawking cornerbacks at Hampton. He led the FCS with 19 passes defensed as a senior. He's playing safety for Green Bay, and his coverage ability is highly valued. With so many cat-quick running backs and athletic tight ends, a safety who can cover is worth his weight in gold. If he improves his tackling, he'll push not just for a place on the roster but a role on the defense.
"You pick up some athleticism, you pick up a speed guy, and you pick up a guy who can cover and give you more flexibility as a coordinator in terms of the calls that you make because you're not worried about putting your safeties in vulnerable positions," Perry said. "You're not putting yourself at risk for giving up a big play, because he can run and cover like a corner."
On the bubble
Anthony Levine: It's time to sink or swim for Levine, who has as much experience in this defense as any of the safeties. Levine signed with the Packers in 2010 and has spent the bulk of the last two seasons on the practice squad. He sat out the offseason practices with an unspecified injury, which won't help his chances.
8: With Peprah (five) and Burnett (three) combining for eight interceptions, the Packers' safeties ranked fifth in the league. Buffalo had 10 and Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco had nine.
Nick Collins' injury not only left the Packers without a premier playmaker but an experienced defender. Outside of Peprah, who's entering his seventh season, the rest of the safeties are relative youngsters. Burnett is entering his third season and Jennings his second. Levine is officially a first-year player, and fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian, undrafted Sean Richardson and undrafted Pellerin are rookies. Peprah is 29, Levine is 24 and nobody else is older than 23.
"Morgan's had a lot of good work," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Morgan's really solid. I really think he's had a good offseason. We like some of the progress that M.D. Jennings has made. You saw Charles (Woodson) coming back. He'll have a role in there, whether we call it ‘corner okie' or whatever. I think that Jerron McMillan, we've been getting him an awful lot of work. Levine's been around. I think we'll have some real options back there. Charlie knows our scheme. So, I think we've got some good youth there. You think about this, Morgan is 23, now this is his third year. I think you'll see him take a big step."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.