GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Rookie safety Morgan Burnett was among the top names on my list of players to watch Thursday when the NFC North bus pulled into Green Bay Packers training camp. We discussed Burnett's future this spring as much as any NFC North rookie, and it now appears for good reason.
As Burnett continued to take every first-team repetition at strong safety, incumbent starter Atari Bigby was preparing to undergo surgery on his left ankle. Bigby said the procedure will be an arthroscopic "cleanup" for the more invasive surgery he had two years ago and that, barring complications, he will be healthy in time for the regular season.
But if nothing else, the ensuing rehabilitation time will give Burnett more time to wrest the job away from a veteran who skipped the entire offseason because of a contract dispute. That dynamic was clearly swirling around the Packers' locker room after Thursday's practice.
Asked whether he'd feel comfortable starting next to a rookie this season, Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins said: "I'm not to trying to start nothing. I know you're trying to get something out of me but you can't. But the young guy is doing a good job. He's just playing his role right now. He understands what his role is and we just want him to move forward from there."
The circumstances of Bigby's injury, layered with his offseason-long contract dispute, make for a bit of an uncomfortable dynamic. Bigby said Thursday that he felt some discomfort in the ankle while working out on his own this offseason, but he was never concerned him enough to seek medical attention. "I think I had to push it," he said.
"During the season you have to push it, but it got to the point where ... I figured I don't need to try to battle it. Let's try to fix it."
A natural response: Would the injury have been addressed sooner had he been participating in the Packers' offseason program?
"I don't know," Bigby said. "Possibly. But I know I came back in shape."
Indeed, Bigby passed his conditioning test last week but pain increased thereafter. He hasn't practiced with the team since the end of last season, and now his return to the field is at least several more weeks away.
The Packers certainly have high hopes for Burnett, whom they traded up to select in the third round of the April draft. It's one thing to be excited about a rookie, but it's quite another to start him in Week 1 of the season.
Thursday, I got the sense that like most rookies, Burnett is swimming in the terminology and responsibilities that go with being an NFL safety. It's nothing to worry about now, so long as a natural progression occurs.
"I can't really say [I'm ready] because we're just in the first week of training camp," Burnett said. "By the end of camp, I'll have everything that I need down. As of right now, I'm still in the learning process of just getting done with the first week of camp.
There's a long way to go. At the end of training camp, I want to be prepared for this."
In the meantime, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Collins is handling the majority of calls for both positions.
"When you watch us out there," Capers said, "you'll notice he's taken much more of a leadership role in terms of making the calls. That's important, because it affects the confidence of the defense. ... When Morgan and him are out there, he's got to be the lead dog. He's made the Pro Bowl the past two years. I've been pleased with the progress he's made there."
My feeling is that you can get by with a rookie safety as long as the other safety has an established résumé. Collins fits that bill. As for Bigby, I don't have a great sense for how coincidental the timing of this injury is, but the bottom line from all parties is that he will still be an option -- if not the lead option -- to get on the field once the calendar flips to September.