Packer Report concludes its position-by-position training camp preview with a look at the safeties. The list after "depth" includes all of the players on the current roster. The list after "final cut" is our prediction on who will make the final roster, with the number of players based on past seasons.
Review: Talk about a mixed bag. Nick Collins entered training camp facing a battle with Aaron Rouse to keep his starting job. When all was said in done, Collins won that battle in a rout and tied teammate Charles Woodson for the NFC lead with seven interceptions. Collins was a big-play machine, with a league-high and franchise-record-tying three touchdown returns and a league-high and franchise-record 295 interception return yards to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl. On the other end of the spectrum, impact safety Atari Bigby suffered through a litany of injuries. After a game-clinching interception against Minnesota in Week 1, he was barely heard from again. The defense suffered in a big way. The Packers were 3-6 in the nine games he missed, 3-7 when he didn't start and 3-8 when he barely played. Without Bigby, Aaron Rouse and Charlie Peprah filled in but neither was good enough.
Strength: If healthy and ready, the starters are a top-tier group in the NFL. Collins, under the mentorship of Woodson, became exponentially smarter and finally put it all together. Not only did he make a ton of big plays, but he fought through a bunch of nagging injuries that slowed him late in the season and impacted his tackling. Against Tampa Bay in Week 4, Collins' interception was so impressive that Bucs coach Jon Gruden let quarterback Brian Griese off the hook because he had never seen a safety make a play with such a combination of athleticism and instinct. Bigby's absence can't be overestimated. When he started 16 games in 2007, he intercepted five passes and the Packers went 13-3. He's got a nose for the ball and is easily the biggest hitter on the team. He seems perfectly suited for the Troy Polamalu role he'll play in the new scheme. Rouse also has a nose for the ball, with four interceptions in two seasons, including a 99-yard touchdown to put away Indianapolis. Anthony Smith adds athleticism and deep knowledge of the Packers' defense after spending three years in Pittsburgh. His first season there was under the watch of new Packers safeties coach Darren Perry.
Weakness: The Packers need Collins to get over his contract issues and Bigby to be recovered from offseason ankle surgery, because it's a steep drop from the starting duo. Smith went from promising prospect to spectator during the Steelers' run to the Super Bowl last year. He started four games with two interceptions as a rookie in 2006, 10 games with two interceptions in 2007 but no games in 2008, when he was deactivated in the playoffs. Still, he's first in line should Collins or Bigby struggle because they missed most of the offseason work. Rouse doesn't play to his size or with consistency. The Packers went 3-3 in his six starts, though two of those wins came against punchless Seattle and Detroit. He's not a fluid athlete in coverage and he doesn't hit to his 6-foot-4, 227-pound frame. Peprah started training camp strong but a hamstring injury was the end of that. Bush spent the entire offseason at safety after playing both corner and safety last year. He's a vital cog on special teams, but he also committed a whopping six penalties on the kicking units.
Quoteworthy: "At a certain point, you don't want to go 60 plays and all of a sudden, you expect someone to be where they need to be when you're counting on them when the game's on the line," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "Our mental errors on the back end don't even compare to the mistakes made up front, because we're the last line of defense. That's one of those details where we have to be perfect. The only way you can do that is to know what you're doing, play in and play out."
Final cut (4): Bigby, Collins, Bush, Smith.
In all, the Packers will keep 10 defensive backs. Bigby and Collins and corners Al Harris, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Will Blackmon and Pat Lee are locks. That makes it Bush, Rouse, Smith and rookie corner Brandon Underwood as the leading candidates for the last three spots. Bush is a key special-teams player, Smith knows the defense and Underwood has all the physical tools at a position in which the Packers need young talent. Rouse failed to seize his opportunity last year and is facing a make-or-break season.
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