We continue our training camp positional series with the safeties.
Starters: Morgan Burnett, HaHa Clinton-Dix. Burnett led the team with 125 tackles, including 99 solo stops. He also recorded his first interception in more than two calendar years when he picked off Atlanta’s Matt Ryan on Dec. 8. He added one more in the playoffs, his infamous theft-and-slide in the NFC Championship Game. Not only did he have a strong season on the field but he was named a playoff captain by his peers. In the one game he missed, the Packers were demolished 44-23 at New Orleans. After a disappointing 2013, Burnett bounced back in a big way in large part because of the addition of first-round pick Clinton-Dix, who is infinitely better than M.D. Jennings. At times, Clinton-Dix looked like a rookie — bookended by Ricardo Lockett’s touchdown in Week 1 at Seattle and the two-point prayer by Russell Wilson in the NFC title game. More often than not, however, Clinton-Dix was up to the task. He contributed 95 tackles and one interception in the regular season, then picked off two passes in the championship game. He missed far too many tackles, often because he was a bit out of control. It’s nothing he can’t clean up going into Year 2.
Top backup: Sean Richardson. Richardson led the Packers with 17 tackles on special teams and earned a niche on defense when he replaced cornerback Sam Shields to lend a physical element on running downs. The Packers clearly have high expectations considering they matched Oakland’s one-year, $2.55 million restricted free-agent offer. Every penny of that is guaranteed, making Richardson the most-expensive backup safety in the game.
Contenders: Chris Banjo, Jean Fanor. Banjo played in all 16 games as a rookie in 2013 but languished on the practice squad for most of last season. He was called up for the final three regular-season games and had three special-teams tackles plus three more in the postseason. Fanor went undrafted out of Bethune-Cookman in 2012, played with Tampa Bay in the Arena Football League in 2013 and 2014, and joined Green Bay’s practice squad late in the 2014 season. He’s the closest thing to a newcomer at the position group, as the Packers neither drafted nor signed an undrafted rookie this year.
Was the Seattle game a sign of things to come?: That’s certainly the hope. Safeties coach Darren Perry isn’t one to make too much out of interceptions. Perhaps it’s his way of harnessing expectations considering the big-play ways of the likes of LeRoy Butler, Darren Sharper and Nick Collins. In 2013, the Packers were the only team in the league to not get even one interception from their safeties. Last year, they had two — one apiece from Burnett and Clinton-Dix. However, in the Seattle game, Clinton-Dix had two (and dropped a third) and Burnett had one.
While Perry obviously doesn’t see three interceptions in a game becoming the norm, it is a sign of a tandem that came together down the stretch, and that should bode well for the upcoming season.
“You see it, you see signs,” Perry said. “And I think they’ll continue to get better. It’s obviously still not there yet, but their chemistry, those guys playing off of one another and you can throw Micah (Hyde) into the mix, we’re all in this thing together with the corners. The whole chemistry, they work well together, and I think the stronger we can become as a unit and develop that chemistry, the better we’re going to be. And you saw that throughout the course of the season.”
Is Burnett stuck in a box?: Yes. In 2013, when Burnett didn’t intercept a single pass, one logical explanation — not one voiced by the coaching staff — was that Burnett was stuck playing in the box because Jennings lacked the strength to mix it up at the line of scrimmage. It’s hard to make plays 20 yards down the field, after all, if you’re lined up with the linebackers. Interestingly, according to ProFootballFocus.com, Burnett was lined up in the box on 48.7 percent of opponent running plays in 2013. In 2014, it was almost identical, with Burnett’s box rate up ever-so-slightly to 48.9 percent, even after going from the frail Jennings to the powerful Clinton-Dix as his running-mate. So, it’s worth noting that Burnett had a career-low six passes defensed. Nonetheless, the coaches were thrilled with Burnett’s play.
“Consistency. He was active. Very confident. Played with a lot of confidence,” Perry said. “He stepped up with his leadership — not that he wasn’t the prior year, but this year you could really see the confidence squeeze out with every game that he played in. He just kept getting better and better. We need that confidence, we need that leadership back there and we’re going to be young again (in the secondary).”
How did Clinton-Dix compare to first-round peers: Clinton-Dix was Green Bay’s first-round pick last year and the second safety off the board. He played by far the most snaps of a rookie class that included four first-round picks. By the numbers, of the first-round picks (listed in order of when drafted; snaps, missed tackles and touchdowns allowed from Pro Football Focus and tackles, interceptions and passes defensed from official NFL stats): Calvin Pryor, 699 snaps, 55 tackles, 15 missed tackles, two touchdowns allowed, no interceptions, two passes defensed; Clinton-Dix, 960 snaps, 89 tackles, 15 missed tackles, no touchdowns allowed, one interception and six passes defensed; Deone Bucannon, 705 snaps; 78 tackles, one touchdown allowed, no interceptions, two passes defensed; Jimmie Ward, 250 snaps, 17 tackles, no missed tackles, four touchdowns allowed, no interceptions, two passes defensed. Clinton-Dix ranked first in snaps, first in tackles, first in interceptions and first in passes defensed. (Note: Ward played safety and slot cornerback last season and probably will again this season.)
“I wish I could say I was a veteran but, you know, things have slowed down a lot for me,” Clinton-Dix said. “I feel a lot more comfortable back there with Morgan, most definitely, and with Sean and everyone else who rotates in. I feel a lot more comfortable back there so I feel all right. It’s starting to slow down a lot.”
What were they thinking with Richardson?: The Packers blew up the special teams, starting with firing coordinator Shawn Slocum. The one main cog from last year’s units who survived the purge was Richardson. He’s big, he’s fast and he’s strong, which should equate to special-teams production. With $2.55 million coming his way, he’s being paid to be a stalwart on special teams and, most likely, contribute in specialty roles on defense. It’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, considering there was a chance he might never play football again after a neck injury sustained in 2012 resulted in surgery that put his career in jeopardy.
“If you look production-wise, he was our leading production guy on special teams last year,” new special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “I only know him from last year but, I tell you what, to me, he’s one of those special guys that really, he bought in and he wants to be the best he can be and help this football team.”
Who’s No. 4?: One of the more curious transactions of last season was one that wasn’t made until December. Banjo, who recorded 10 tackles on special teams as a rookie in 2013, spent the first 14 weeks on the practice squad until finally being promoted to the active roster. Considering the pitiful play on special teams for most of the season, keeping Banjo in mothballs didn’t make much sense. At 5-foot-9 3/4, he doesn’t measure up on defense. But he can run, he’s tough and he’s smart. He’ll battle Fanor, a native of Haiti who at age 26 is the second-oldest safety on the roster. It’s possible the Packers could go with three safeties, considering Micah Hyde’s versatility. That, however, might be dependent on rookie cornerback Quinten Rollins’ ability to replace Hyde as the slot corner.
Bill Huber is publisher of 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.