With five days until the start of training camp, we continue our position previews with the safeties.
Starters: Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Backups: Chris Banjo, Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans, Micah Hyde, Jermaine Whitehead.
Coming: Brice (undrafted free agent), Evans (undrafted free agent), Whitehead (street free agent). Going: Sean Richardson.
End of depth chart: Burnett and Clinton-Dix form one of the top safety tandems in the NFL.Hyde, who had a career-high three interceptions, is considered one of the team’s most valuable players, even if he’s not a starter. Banjo, who foolishly was wasted on the practice squad in 2014 even though the special teams were abysmal, made the roster last season and recorded a team-high 21 tackles on special teams — the most by a Packer since Desmond Bishop had 22 in 2009 — and was voted a playoff captain.
The only question is whether Brice, Evans or Whitehead can force their way onto the roster. All three are intriguing prospects, but perhaps none more so than Whitehead. As a senior at Auburn in 2014, he intercepted six passes. At the Scouting Combine, he ran a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash and ranked in the top five among safeties in the broad jump, three-cone drill, vertical jump and 20-yard shuttle. At pro day, he trimmed his 40 time to 4.50. However, he had been suspended for four games for an argument with a position coach, then was relegated to special teams for two more games. That means those six picks came in just seven games. Whitehead wound up going undrafted. He spent most of his rookie season on San Francisco’s practice squad before joining Baltimore’s 53-man roster for the final couple games. The Ravens released him in May and the Packers signed him a few days later. Whitehead (5-11, 195) showed some playmaking skills during his abbreviated stint in Green Bay’s offseason program.
A two-and-a-half-year starter at Louisiana Tech, Brice had career-high totals of 86 tackles, four forced fumbles and two interceptions as a junior. As a senior, he slipped to 60 tackles, one interception and no forced fumbles. Brice, however, turned heads with a great pro day. Brice (5-11, 200) ran his 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds, with a 42-inch vertical leap, an 11-foot, 1-inch broad jump and 21 reps on the 225-pound bench press. Among safeties at the Combine, Brice would have ranked third in the 40, first in the vertical, second in the broad jump and second on the bench press. He’s confident he can make the team, so long as he cleans up his game.
“Instead of big hits every time, just make sure I get the person down,” he said. “When I have the opportunity for the big hit, go ahead and take it. Also, cleaning up my man coverage a little bit.”
Evans (5-11, 211) turned heads at Utah State’s pro day, running a 4.47 with a 42-inch vertical jump and 19 reps on the bench. The native of Oak Creek, Wis., spent one year at Rochester (Minn.) Community College and another year at Highland (Kan.) Community College before landing at Utah State. As a senior, he had 73 tackles, including two sacks and 10 for losses, plus one interception, two forced fumbles and five passes defensed.
IF THIS HAPPENS ...
Green Bay’s defense has been predicated on making big plays. Since Dom Capers took over as defensive coordinator in 2009, the Packers are No. 1 in interceptions and No. 5 in takeaways. Over the past two seasons, Green Bay is fourth in takeaways. However, much of that production has come from the cornerbacks. Burnett and Clinton-Dix have made some big plays — especially Clinton-Dix’s three interceptions in three career playoff games — but there’s room to improve. Last season, Burnett had no interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery for a total of three turnover plays. Clinton-Dix had two interceptions and one forced fumble for a total of three turnover plays. That’s a total of six. Looking at some of the other top teams, Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson combined for 11. Cincinnati’s Reggie Nelson had 10 by himself (as did Charles Woodson). Seattle’s Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor had nine, as did Carolina’s Kurt Coleman and Roman Harper.
If Burnett and Clinton-Dix can deliver more turnovers, a good defense could take a key step forward.
“The thing about those guys is they put pretty high expectations on themselves and I think that’s a great quality to have,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “Any time the coaches’ expectations exceed your own personal ones ... I don’t know how good guys can fully become but those guys take a lot of pride in doing their jobs and trying to be the best they can be, and obviously very talented. We’ll see how it goes. Obviously, they’re a big part of this defense, and the more production we can get out of those guys, the better we’re going to be.”
Clinton-Dix: The Packers were in dire need of a safety entering the 2014 draft, with general manager Ted Thompson gladly swooping up Clinton-Dix with the first-round pick. After a so-so rookie season, Clinton-Dix’s career really took off last season. He led the team in tackles with 117. He added two interceptions and three sacks — the most by a Packers safety since 2004.
“Ha Ha Clinton Dix is as fine of a safety as there is in the National Football League,” coach Mike McCarthy proclaimed in May.
What do you think of that, Ha Ha?
“I don’t really like to speak highly of myself but I just let my film speak for itself,” Clinton-Dix said. “I thank Coach for saying that about me in the media. I just want to continue to work hard and continue to help this team win.”
A big reason why McCarthy says the biggest jumps tend to be made between Year 1 and Year 2 is because of the players’ growing mastery of the scheme. Clinton-Dix and Burnett became in tune with the defense and each other — to Perry’s confusion and delight.
“I didn’t know, myself, what they were doing at times because they were mixing it up, so I said, ‘If I can’t figure it out, I’m sure the opposition is having a tough time figuring it out, as well,” Perry said.
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.