Thursday, April 17, 2014
Time to find the next big-play safety
By Rob Demovsky
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Pick after pick crawled across the bottom of television screens last April 25, 26 and 27 and those wondering when the Green Bay Packers would draft a safety got their answer when the 254th -- and final -- pick in the 2013 NFL draft was announced.
Three safeties went in the first round, but none to the Packers.
Two more came off the board in Round 2, but neither was a Packers pick.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may be available to the Packers when they draft in the first round.
Seventeen more were drafted on the third and final day, yet the Packers still had not filled one of their biggest needs.
That's not to say they went into last year's draft wholly convinced that they didn't need help at the position. But when it came time to exercise each of his selections, there wasn't a safety sitting there that intrigued general manager Ted Thompson enough to make that call.
Thompson liked a few of the safeties in the draft, but the ones he was sold on were either already off the board or would have been a reach at the time of his pick.
So here are the Packers, nearly a year later, and Thompson still has not put pen to paper on a contract for a new safety of any consequence. (And no, street free agent Chris Banjo does not count.)
That has to change next month, when Thompson will take nine selections into the May 8-10 NFL draft, doesn't it?
If Thompson fails to land one of the top, say, five or six safeties in this draft -- be it Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama or Calvin Pryor of Louisville, both of who are locks to go in the first round; or possible second- and third-round picks like Jimmie Ward of Northern Illinois, Deone Bucannon of Washington State or Terrence Brooks of Florida State -- then he will be handcuffing defensive coordinator Dom Capers in much the same fashion he did last season.
Last summer, Capers and coach Mike McCarthy opened the competition at free safety to a pair of second-year players, Jerron McMillian (a 2012 fourth-round round pick) and M.D. Jennings (an undrafted free agent the same year). It was a close competition, more so because neither one stood out, and when strong safety Morgan Burnett was unavailable for the season opener because of a hamstring injury, that duo started Week 1 at the two safety spots.
The Packers thought so little of their performances that they cut McMillian late last season and did not even bother this offseason to offer Jennings a restricted free agent tender, which would not have cost them any guaranteed money.
"Obviously we didn't get the production that we wanted from that [free safety] position," safeties coach Darren Perry said this offseason.
To be sure, the Packers need Burnett to show that Thompson wasn't misguided when he signed him to a four-year, $24.75 million contract last summer.
"I think he's fully capable of doing it," McCarthy said this offseason. "Morgan's going to do everything he can. He needs to be more assertive in play-making opportunities."
In order for Burnett to flourish, he can't be worried about the player lined up next to him. That player was supposed to be Nick Collins, the three-time Pro Bowl safety whose career was cut short in 2011 by a neck injury. At age 30, he still would have been in the prime of his career last season.
If the Packers don't find another Collins, they must at least come close.
Since the team's resurgence in the early 1990s, they have enjoyed a strong group of safeties -- from LeRoy Butler to Darren Sharper to Collins; all were Pro Bowl selections during their time in Green Bay.
The dynamic of the position has changed in recent years. Whereas Butler was a fierce hitter, today's safeties are judged just as much on speed and ball skills as anything else. What NFL teams need now are safeties than can cover chunks of yardage in milliseconds and knock passes away or, better yet, intercept them. The Packers were the only team in the NFL last season that didn't get a single interception from a safety.
"The intimidator isn't necessarily needed anymore," ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said. "The big hitters, you don't need that."
Kiper doesn't believe Clinton-Dix will be around when the Packers come up at No. 21 in the first round, but Pryor very well could be available.
Even if Pryor is gone or Thompson passes on him, he will have other options, says Kiper.
"Jimmy Ward from Northern Illinois you could make an argument is the best cover safety in the draft," Kiper said. "He's coming off the [foot] injury but he had a very good career, has great ball skills, real good hands for the interception. And Ward is a decent tackler, but he doesn't have tremendous size [5-foot-11, 193 pounds].
"The days of that big, intimidating safety are just about over. Terrence Brooks from Florida State would fill that void at that point as a safety that could come in and help you right away."
No matter what Thompson does in the draft, Capers and McCarthy plan to work cornerback Micah Hyde at safety this offseason. Perhaps the fifth-round pick out of Iowa last year will be the full-time answer; he certainly showed enough as a rookie to warrant more than the 39.4 percent playing time he got last year. But if the Packers think Hyde can allow them to concentrate on other areas of need in the draft, they'd better be right.