Two-a-Days: Safeties

Our two-positions-a-day training camp preview continues with the safeties, led by two-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins. We tell you about their strengths and weaknesses, and use our 20-20 general manager's goggles to find better (and worse) options.

Free safety

Probable starter:

Nick Collins.

Depth:

Will Blackmon, Anthony Levine. (Note, unlike some defenses, the terms "free" and "strong" safety don't mean as much for the Packers since those roles are frequently interchangeable.)

The lowdown

The Packers have one of the NFL's best playmakers in Collins, whose 13 interceptions over the last two seasons are more than any other safety in the NFL. Even with that productivity and back-to-back Pro Bowl trips, Collins is never mentioned in the same breath as, say, Baltimore's Ed Reed. It's no wonder the Packers rewarded Collins with a four-year deal worth $26.75 million (for sake of accuracy, he is playing this year under the restricted tender and the Packers signed him to a three-year extension that pays him the bulk of the money this season). Not only does his production speak for itself, but he's missed only three games in his first five seasons (all in 2007). Collins is smart and instinctive and has an incredible burst to the ball. Until the Packers signed undrafted corner Sam Shields, Collins was probably the fastest player on the team. He got better as the year went on, no doubt a byproduct of his comfort level in the defense. After picking off just one pass in the first seven games, Collins had an interception five times in a six-game stretch as the team surged into the playoffs. He had a fumble recovery and interception on back-to-back drives to help win the Baltimore game, and his interception rescued the Packers at Chicago. He's also a solid tackler with underrated hitting ability. Blackmon faces the challenging move from cornerback to safety, a switch made even tougher because he couldn't practice in the offseason due to a torn ACL suffered in Week 4 last year. He's smart and athletic, which should give him a chance. Levine, who was signed after the rookie camp, is compact and athletic.

Quoteworthy

Collins, on following up his Pro Bowl honor with another one: "I credit my teammates for putting me in this position. My mind-set was just try to prove everybody wrong, all the bad talk about, saying, ‘He's a one-hit wonder. He's not going to get the job done.' I feed off that. I'm not a guy reading the newspaper all the time, but you hear people talk about it from time to time. I kind of feed off it, go about my day and laugh at it."

Could be better

The Packers landed big Aaron Rouse in the third round in 2007 but that didn't pan out. He was released and wound up starting for the Giants during the second half of last season but played poorly down the stretch and isn't on a roster headed into training camps. Selected after Rouse were Tampa Bay's Tanard Jackson and San Francisco's physical Dashon Goldson (both fourth round). Both are starters, with Jackson picking off five balls last year and Goldson four in his first year as the starter.

Could be worse

Bethune-what? That was the consensus opinion when the Packers drafted Collins with the 51st overall pick in 2005. Two safeties went ahead of Collins in that draft: Brodney Pool (Cleveland, No. 34) and Josh Bullocks (New Orleans, No. 40). Pool has developed into a nice player with nine interceptions during his three years as the starter. Bullocks is a journeyman whose roster spot is in jeopardy with Chicago.


Strong safety

Probable starter:

Atari Bigby or Morgan Burnett.

Depth:

Derrick Martin, Charlie Peprah. (Note, unlike some defenses, the terms "free" and "strong" safety don't mean as much for the Packers since those roles are frequently interchangeable.)

The lowdown


Atari Bigby
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images
It's the biggest training camp battle: Bigby vs. Burnett to be the starter. Bigby has started for the past three seasons. On the plus side, he's got 10 interceptions during that span, loves to lay the lumber and the team is 25-8 when he starts. On the minus side, he's missed 12 games during the past two seasons and can be exploited by elite passing attacks. Bigby skipped the offseason workouts while trying to get a long-term extension, and finally agreed to sign his restricted free agent tender on Tuesday. The Packers had no reason to give in to Bigby's wishes after moving up 15 spots in the third round to get Burnett, who they had targeted all along after he picked off 14 passes in three seasons at Georgia Tech. Burnett threw more cold water on Bigby's big-money desires by being one of the standouts of offseason practices. Of course, Allen Barbre and Jeremy Thompson had a superb May and June last year but it didn't translate to when the pads went on in August. Burnett's speed is obvious, but how will he hold up mentally and physically when it's for real? An out-of-position linebacker might allow a 10-yard gain. An out-of-position safety will allow a touchdown. Bigby almost never is out of position. So, let's hold off a moment before anointing Burnett the starter and Bigby a backup and special-teamer. Martin is superb on special teams, as was Peprah during his first stint in Green Bay.

Quoteworthy

Safeties coach Darren Perry, on Burnett benefitting from extra practice time without Bigby: "As a young guy, the more reps that you get, the more opportunities that you get to showcase and show the coaching staff that you're more than capable of handling the load, I think what happens is, the more reps, the more and more comfortable they become, and their teammates gain confidence. Those reps that he's getting right now, they're invaluable. I think even Atari will admit to not being able to get on-the-field reps last year probably played a little bit of a factor in his slow growth. It's one thing to do it in the classroom but to get the speed element of it and all the movements of it and particularly the formations that our offense gives us this time of year — we don't get a chance to prep, (so that's a big challenge)."

Could be better

The Packers hit a home run with Collins in the second round in 2005 but missed badly on Marviel Underwood (fourth round, 2005), Tyrone Culver (sixth round, 2006) and Rouse (third round, 2007). Only Culver, who started two games for Miami last year, is in the league.

Could be worse

Only time will tell, but general manager Ted Thompson's bold move to give up his third- and fourth-round picks to move up 15 spots to get Burnett could be a stroke of genius. A couple personnel sources told us during the draft process that Burnett was the third-best safety in the draft, behind Eric Berry and Earl Thomas — and far superior to USC's hyped Taylor Mays. Burnett was the sixth safety off the board.

On a scale of 1 to 10 ...

With a 10 being Charles Woodson against anybody, a 5 being Mason Crosby from 45 yards and the ball on the right hash and a 1 being Allen Barbre against anybody, this position group rates an 8.0.

Collins is a brilliant playmaker. Imagine the possibilities if Burnett's big-play ability from Georgia Tech translates to the NFL. If that happens, Green Bay will have the best safety duo in the NFL and its defense will be among the league leaders in turnovers for years to come. The fallback plan isn't bad, either, because Bigby has proven to be a solid player who gets the most of his ability.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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