Position preview: Safeties

Can the Packers' defense make up for the loss of Darren Sharper?

If there is a front-runner at this point of the year for a starting spot at safety, it would be veteran Arturo Freeman. But just because he has played in Jim Bates' defense doesn't make him a shoe-in for the job.

Freeman, entering his sixth season in the NFL after spending his first five with the Miami Dolphins, will be competing against veterans Earl Little and Todd Franz, and rookies Nick Collins and Marviel Underwood for a starting spot next to Mark Roman.

The Packers released starting safety Darren Sharper in a salary cap move in March and cut backup Michael Hawthorne. Green Bay also allowed backup Bhawoh Jue to sign with San Diego in free agency, leaving one starting spot wide open and backup spots as well.

Freeman, however, has an edge on his competition as the team prepares for training camp because he is familiar with the terminology of Bates' defense. He also knows the role of the safeties within the system.

"There are certain things that come natural to him as far as the calls and everything," said defensive backs coach Joe Baker. "Some guys have to grind it out a little bit or think through it. With him, it's natural."

Freeman, 28, played in all 16 games last season and started nine, including the last seven of the season after former Packer Antuan Edwards was released. He had 38 tackles and a career-high four interceptions.

With good training camps, Collins or Underwood may push Roman out of a starting spot. In fact, both rookie draft picks are being groomed as the starters of the future for the Packers. The coaches made it a point to keep both on the field at the same time during the off-season minicamps so they learn how to communicate with each other.

Projected starters: Arturo Freeman, Mark Roman
These two are the incumbents as training camp begins this week. Roman feels he was unjustly criticized last season after playing most of the season with chronic knee pain that caused him to miss a start. Freeman has the edge over Little at this time.

Projected reserves: Nick Collins, Marviel Underwood
Collins and Underwood are the future at safety for the Packers. Look for them to be the starters as early as next season if all goes well with their progress.

On the bubble: Todd Franz, Earl Little, Julius Curry, Wendell Williams
Little and Franz serve as insurance against injuries to Freeman and Roman. Of course, if either has a good camp, they may move from the outhouse to the penthouse.

Todd Korth

Note: Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at packrepted@aol.com.

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