High-flying Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett tallied 14 interceptions in his three-year career with the Yellow Jackets. For his efforts, he has been mentioned in scouting reports as a "crowd pleaser for his acrobatic moves to secure the pigskin," a phrase that also could describe some of his new teammates, Pro Bowlers Charles Woodson and Nick Collins.
"This kid has great ball skills," said Packers safeties coach Darren Perry. "I think just having a feel for coverages, just feeling routes and taking good angles, that's one of the things you see young players not quite have a good grasp of. … Some guys just have a unique ability to do that and you don't have to coach them on that. You see this guy with just a lot of natural ability and that's what allows him to make plays."
Said Burnett, minutes after being selected by the Packers: "I have a knack for the football. And being around 10 other guys (at Georgia Tech) and our defensive front led by (Titans' first-round pick) Derrick Morgan, just him getting a good push, when I see that ball in the air, I just like to compete and want to be the one coming down with it."
Burnett adds some much-needed depth at the safety position for the Packers. Entering the draft, the team had only Atari Bigby, Collins, Derrick Martin and converted wide receiver Khalil Jones (who joined the team late last season as a member of the practice squad) on its roster.
Clearly, however, Burnett has a chance to unseat starter Bigby, who has had injury trouble over his career. Burnett never missed a game in his college, and that Packers general manager Ted Thompson made just his third trade up in six drafts with the Packers to get Burnett speaks to how much they valued the junior entry.
"He's got some good competition in front of him, but I think he's a legitimate player or we wouldn't have made that trade," said Thompson, who traded his third-round pick (No. 86 overall) and his fourth-rounder (No. 122) to move up 15 spots to get Burnett. "He has good anticipation. He has a feel for space. He's a little bit like a centerfielder."
Burnett was part of an aggressive defense at Georgia Tech. This past season, he saw opposing offenses try to stay away from him, a game plan that was no doubt influenced by a sophomore season in which he posted career highs in interceptions (an NCAA-leading seven), pass breakups (eight), and tackles (93).
Because of such attention, his numbers dropped slightly in 2009 (four interceptions, four breakups, 85 tackles). Couple that with not performing all the drills at the Combine because of a tweaked hamstring, and Burnett could have been a higher draft pick.
Thompson was not at Burnett's Pro Day workout, but instead said he poured over film of the safety and liked what he saw. Aside from the ball-hawking qualities, Burnett had other qualities that made him a natural fit for the Packers.
"He has all the ingredients we look for to play safety," said Thompson. "He has the ability to be a dual guy, the kind of guy that you're looking for that's athletic enough to cover a guy and can still come up and make tackles.
"It's all well and good to write down your depth charts and say this guy's going to play here and this guy's going to play there, but that's not the way life works in the NFL. You have to have the versatility and the ability to line up in different spots."
Burnett said he made the majority of defensive calls for the Yellow Jackets and also played some at the line of scrimmage in sub-packages. This led some to believe that Burnett was inconsistent in his play at times, but Perry saw otherwise.
"People may take that as freelancing or being out of position, when in actuality, he was just playing a different position for that defense," said Perry.
Dig deeper into Burnett's film and that versatility comes out. Scouting reports note that he is also strong in run support in third- and fourth-down situations and in the red zone. He had 13.5 tackles for losses in his career, a high number for a defensive back.
"He can do it all," said Perry. "When we look at safeties, we look at guys that have the ability to do both. Our system is complex. We look for guys that are not your typical ‘box' safeties, guys that can play well in space, yet have the ability to be a factor in the run game. We think Morgan has that ability."