NFC North: M.D. Jennings

Moment in Time: Fail Mary revisited

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
2:00
PM ET
SEATTLE -- As painful as the play might have been -- and probably still is -- for Green Bay Packers' fans, the famous Fail Mary touchdown in Seattle nearly two years ago will always have a place in franchise and NFL history.

It will forever be a "Moment in Time," which makes it interesting to revisit the play through the key figures involved in one of the most controversial endings pro football has ever seen. You can do that by clicking on the link above.

What you will find is anger, jubilation, humor and much more from the play's central characters, including the official who made the touchdown call.

Here are some highlights from each:
  • Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who was standing next to team security head Doug Collins while the play was being review: "And I remember talking to Doug saying, 'Hey, they're not playing the replay here. We're going to be fine.' But I had this weird feeling. It reminded me a little bit of the Immaculate Reception. I remember [referee] Wayne [Elliott] comes walking out to the boundary, and I said to Doug, 'Holy s---. He doesn't have the balls to overturn it.' He was scared to death. He looked nervous."
  • Side judge Lance Easley, who made the touchdown call: "I said, 'Oh God, please when I get over to that pile, let someone have clear possession of the ball.' I got over there and looked down, and it was like a meatball with spaghetti wrapped all around it. … By rule, I got it right. By rule, there's nothing else I could do with it."
  • Then-Seahawks receiver Golden Tate, who caught the touchdown: "I actually have a bottle of wine signed by Charles Woodson that says 'Touch-ception' or something like that. M.D. Jennings signed a picture that I also have that says something, but I forgot what it says; I haven't looked at it in a while."
  • Then-Packers safety M.D. Jennings, who thought he intercepted it and said he signed autographs with the postscript "Screwed in Seattle" on pictures for Packers' fans: "It's what they wanted. I did it. The fans loved it."
  • Packers cornerback Sam Shields, who said he knew immediately who had shoved him as the ball was in the air (an act the NFL later said should have been called offensive pass interference): "It was Tate."
  • Packers cornerback Tramon Williams: "I'm looking at M.D., who's got it and has got it against his chest, and I'm saying to myself, 'We won the game.' And you look up at the referee, and you want to get that validation. You look up at the referee, and those guys are looking around like they don't know, and then they call it a touchdown, and it's like, 'No, no, this can't happen.'"
  • Seahawks coach Pete Carroll: "What I liked is Golden had the ball lying on the ground. I know he had the ball on the ground. When do you call it a catch? [Easley] looked down and that's what he saw, so he gave him a touchdown. It was a tremendous play by their guy and our guy, and that's the way he saw it."
  • Seahawks receiver Charly Martin, who also was in the scrum for the ball: "I take a lot of flak, being the white guy who can't jump, because there are some pretty good pictures out there where I am about two inches off the ground and everyone else is skyrocketing over me. I just tell them, 'Hey, they used me. They used me as a springboard.' I kind of boxed them out for Golden, and they pushed me down."
  • Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, the man who heaved the pass: "Everybody was a target. I was able to find a player in the back of the end zone and hit him."
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Lovie Smith finished 10-6 in his final season with the Chicago Bears before being fired. Marc Trestman comes in and leads the Bears to an 8-8 record in 2013. Yet expectations soar here on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, where crowds for training camp practices routinely swell to 10,000.

It’s easy to see why. For a fan base accustomed to hard-nosed defense and shaky-at-best offense, Trestman flipped the script in 2013, taking Chicago’s attack to new heights with a major assist from general manager Phil Emery’s shrewd personnel moves.

The Bears broke record after record on offense last season, and the defense stumbled to historic lows.

If Trestman and Emery could basically work a miracle on offense in just one season, why can’t they do it on the other side of the ball in 2014?

“[I] feel very good about the competitive depth and the fights for positions that we're going to have,” Emery said. “Out of the three camps, I would say this camp has the best competitive level among the roster from 1 to 90.”

Emery achieved that by loading up on defenders: acquiring a mix of players poised to hit the sweet spot of their careers in Lamarr Houston and Willie YoungJared Allen, and drafting potential stars such as first-round pick Kyle Fuller. The Bears bolstered those moves with an overhaul of the scheme and additions to the defensive coaching staff.

“We started [with], ‘What could we do to get this team better?’” Trestman said. “I sat down with Phil [Emery], and we began to lay out a road map together on how we were going to rebuild this football team, and here we are at a stage where I don’t think there’s a player in our meeting room who doesn’t feel like there’s hope and high expectations. Now, it’s time to go to work.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJay Cutler is more comfortable in coach Marc Trestman's system, and all of his offensive weapons are healthy and ready to go.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Jay Cutler’s grasp of the offense is firmer in Year 2 of Trestman’s system, and his performance this year at camp is significantly different from in 2013. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said Cutler is his own problem solver and is making on-field adjustments so instinctively that he doesn’t need guidance from the staff. In his first camp under Trestman, Cutler misfired routinely, and there were concerns about whether he’d be effective in the regular season. After one particularly bad session in 2013, Trestman gathered Cutler and the other quarterbacks in the middle of the field in what could be described as a turning point. That’s not happening this year at camp as Cutler has become a bona fide field general.

2. Brandon Marshall is Brandon Marshall. He wasn’t at camp in 2013. He was coming off hip surgery that hindered his season preparation. Fully healthy now with an offseason to condition, Marshall is ready to go -- and with full comprehension of the offensive system. Throw in Alshon Jeffery’s ascension and you have the makings of something lethal on offense. The duo has certainly looked that way at camp as both routinely make so many eye-popping plays that Cutler could almost throw it up blindly and one of them would come down with the ball.

3. There’s a nastiness on defense and intense focus reminiscent of the units put on the field in Smith’s heyday. Practicing against one of the best offenses in the league, the defense should be losing more than it does at training camp. But this group routinely bests the offense, with dominating play by the front seven as a hallmark. Chalk it up to a combination of personnel additions and a culture shift brought about by an overhaul of the scheme and the acquisition of no-nonsense, get-in-your-face coaches such as Paul Pasqualoni, Reggie Herring and Clint Hurtt.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mundy
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Bears brought Ryan Mundy in to compete at safety, but the position, at least in camp, continues to look shaky.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The defensive line makes plays at training camp. The corners and linebackers make plays. But you rarely see the safeties making an impact. That could be a result of a lack of chemistry because, with both spots up for grabs, the Bears are using several combinations at the position involving players such as Ryan Mundy, rookie Brock Vereen, Danny McCray, Adrian Wilson and M.D. Jennings. Horrid play at this position in 2013 contributed significantly to the defense’s demise, and we haven’t seen many indications at camp that the Bears will turn that around in 2014.

2. Protecting Cutler could become an issue if some of the injuries suffered by the team's offensive linemen linger. Guard Kyle Long (ankle) and tackle Jordan Mills (foot) missed the preseason opener, and the latter was seen wearing a walking boot when the club returned to training camp after that game. Reserve center Brian de la Puente is expected to miss time to a knee injury, and reserve guard/tackle Eben Britton still hasn’t returned from a strained hamstring suffered earlier at camp.

3. Cutler hasn’t played an entire 16-game season since 2009. So naturally, you’d think at some point in 2014 the Bears will have to turn to the backup quarterback. The problem is the candidates vying for the No. 2 job -- Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen -- have done little to inspire confidence the way Josh McCown did last year at training camp. For the most part, Palmer and Clausen have been merely average at camp, misfiring on occasion and making mistakes typical of players acclimating themselves to a scheme. The duo needs to pick it up or the Bears could wind up looking outside the current roster for a suitable No. 2.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Chris Conte says he’s the best athlete in Chicago’s secondary. He needs to prove it, which he'll finally have a chance to do now that he's off the physically unable to perform list. Conte certainly possesses the athleticism to be a playmaker on the back end, provided he regains his confidence. But time is running out for Conte to make a real push for one of the two open jobs at safety. What Conte has going for him right now is that none of the safeties vying for the starting jobs is making plays at camp.
  • The Bears hired martial arts expert Joe Kim to teach the defensive linemen hand fighting techniques as part of the scheme overhaul that requires the front four players to be technicians with their hands. It’ll be interesting to see how the results manifest themselves on the field. Every day after practice at camp, several defensive linemen -- and even some defensive backs -- work intricate hand fighting moves with Kim for several minutes. The players say the moves become almost natural once routinely put into practice on the field. We’ll see whether Kim’s assistance plays a role in the front four anchoring a run defense that finished last in 2013.
  • Zach Miller and Matthew Mulligan are pushing Dante Rosario hard for the No. 2 job at tight end. Miller is more of a move tight end, and Mulligan is a classic in-line blocker who shows some impressive skills as a receiver. The two have received extra reps because of Martellus Bennett's suspension.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Five-time Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson received his opportunity Friday to run with the first team at Chicago Bears practice, but the move shouldn’t be seen as an indication the team has narrowed its search for starters at the position.

The Bears want to see multiple combinations occupying the two open safety jobs, and they’re making sure none of the candidates become comfortable with the rotation. There’s a chance the Bears will open practice Saturday night at Soldier Field with a different combination on the back end.

Wilson
“The rationale is that it’s an open competition and we’re gonna move people around,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “I think what Adrian’s done is he’s kind of worked himself back into playing football, and we’ve kind of just stood back and allowed him to acclimate himself to not only what’s going on in the classroom, but get his feet underneath him on the field. He continues to get a little better each and every day.”

Out of football for the entire 2013 season, Wilson seems to be gaining a level of comfort in Chicago’s scheme, and the staff has noticed that the safety’s conditioning has improved. As each day passes, Wilson appears to play faster, and members of the staff think he still has the ability to play safety in the NFL.

Wilson still needs to impress with strong performances in the upcoming exhibition games.

“[Defensive coordinator] Mel [Tucker], [defensive quality control coach] Chris [Harris] and [secondary coach] Jon [Hoke] felt it was time to move him up there and get a day’s practice,” Trestman said. “We’ll look at the tape and see how he did, and continue to move people around.”

Wilson played opposite Danny McCray with the starters when the Bears opened up team drills and remained with the No. 1 defense throughout the day. With both safety jobs up for grabs, the Bears have utilized several combinations at the position. Ryan Mundy and rookie Brock Vereen have taken snaps with the starters, as have McCray and M.D. Jennings.

Chris Conte and Craig Steltz will also be a part of the competition when they return from the physically unable to perform list.

Conte has been the starter at free safety for the majority of the last three seasons and is a favorite to win a starting job in 2014, provided he returns healthy after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Steltz, meanwhile, has been sidelined with a groin injury.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Whatever the reasons Morgan Burnett was shut out in the interception department last season, don't blame it on the $24.75 million contract extension he signed last July with the Green Bay Packers.

The fifth-year safety insists he did not put any pressure on himself to justify that contract, which contained an $8.25 million signing bonus.

"No, not at all," Burnett said this week during OTAs. "You're obligated to come in and do a job, and that's my job as a safety, to try to come in and be the best safety that I can possibly be."

Burnett
Then why did Burnett – and the rest of the Packers' safeties – fail to come up with a single interception last season?

The Packers were the only team in the NFL that did not get an interception from a safety in 2013.

"When you turn on the film, everyone did what they were supposed to do," Burnett said. "You do your job. With interceptions, you've got to understand that's going to come. And when they come, they come in bunches. So you just stick to doing your job, staying in position, don't go chasing plays because that's when you start looking bad. So there's no pressure with that. The only thing we do is line up, play the defense, and the interceptions will come."

For their part, the Packers' coaches have backed Burnett. Safeties coach Darren Perry called Burnett “still a young player, ascending.” And earlier this offseason coach Mike McCarthy said believes Burnett will make more impact plays this season.

Perhaps the problem was that the Packers failed to find a capable safety to pair with Burnett. When they drafted him in the third round in 2010, they envisioned a long-lasting pairing with Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, whose career ended because of a 2011 neck injury.

M.D. Jennings started the last 26 regular-season games next to Burnett and the Packers thought so little of his play that when he became a restricted free agent this offseason, they did not bother to offer him even the minimum contract tender. Jennings then signed a one-year, minimum deal with the Chicago Bears.

This offseason, the Packers have tried cornerback Micah Hyde at safety and used their first-round pick on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. One of those two will be expected to start next to Burnett.

However, Burnett refuses to blame anyone or anything on his inability to make more big plays.

"There's no excuses," Burnett said. "Everybody has to come in and collectively get the job done."
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Based on the organized team activities (OTA) portion of the Chicago Bears' offseason program, rookie fourth-round pick Brock Vereen looks to be a serious contender to earn a permanent place in the starting lineup.

[+] EnlargeBrock Vereen
Nam Y. Huh/AP PhotoBears safety Brock Vereen, who participated in the team's rookie minicamp in May, is adjusting to playing in the NFL.
Vereen took all the first-team reps at safety alongside free-agent signee Ryan Mundy on Wednesday, as veterans Chris Conte and Craig Steltz continue to be sidelined due to injuries. M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray handled the reps on the second team.

"I wouldn't say [I'm] shocked [by the starters reps], but I know nothing is set," Vereen said. "I'm just coming in and working hard. If that gets me on the field, then so be it.

"It's really starting to slow down for me out there. Now I'm able to react rather than to have to think about it."

Vereen played multiple defensive back positions in college for Minnesota, but appears best suited to line up at free safety in the NFL. Mundy is built like a strong safety at 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, but the safety spots are generally viewed as interchangeable.

Here are other observations from Wednesday's OTA, the final session open to the media:

• With Matt Slauson still recovering from shoulder surgery, Brian de la Puente worked with the starters at left guard. Many consider de la Puente to be the heir apparent to Roberto Garza at center, although the former New Orleans Saints starter signed only a one-year contract with the Bears in the offseason.

• Cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff were present this week after being absent from last week's open OTA to the media.

• The Bears' trio of linebackers in their base defense during the majority of team drills consisted of D.J. Williams (MLB), Lance Briggs (WLB) and Shea McClellin (SLB). However, both Williams and McClellin came off the field in the nickel package in favor of Jon Bostic.

• Rookie first-round draft choice Kyle Fuller continued to run with the No. 1's in nickel as Tim Jennings mainly bumped inside to cover the slot with Tillman at the opposite cornerback spot.

Jay Cutler connected with Brandon Marshall and Marquess Wilson in the end zone on back-to-back passes during a red zone drill. Marshall did have a couple drops over the course of the afternoon.

• Marshall did return a punt at one point on Wednesday.

• Reserve quarterback Jerrod Johnson saw action on special teams when he lined up as one of the two cornerbacks tasked with slowing down the gunner on punt return. Hard to remember a quarterback wearing the orange "off-limits" jersey ever participating on special teams before. But Johnson held up just fine during the drill and flashed some impressive speed trailing the gunner down the field.

• New quarterback Jimmy Clausen received fewer reps than Johnson and rookie David Fales, but the former Carolina Panther had some zip on the ball and seemed to have a decent understanding of the offense whenever he went under center.

• The Bears have one final OTA scheduled for Thursday in advance of the club's three-day veteran minicamp next week. Cutler is expected to meet the media next Tuesday for the first time since the start of the offseason in April.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chris Conte is unsure of the exact date he'll receive medical clearance to return to the field, but the Chicago Bears free safety said on Tuesday he's experienced no setbacks with his surgically repaired shoulder.

Conrath
Conte
Conte underwent a procedure on March 26 to correct a lingering shoulder issue. The team originally announced Conte would be sidelined four-to-five months.

"As soon as I can get back out there, I'll get back," Conte said following the team's organized team activity.

"But I can do a lot of stuff with the shoulder. The Bears have a whole protocol of things that I need to be doing [to strengthen the shoulder], and I go by what the doctor says. I'm just following orders. I haven't had any setbacks or anything. Everything is going well."

Conte and fellow veteran Craig Steltz were spectators at Tuesday's open OTA while free-agent addition Ryan Mundy and 2014 fourth-round draft choice Brock Vereen spent much of the workout lining up at safety with the first-team defense. Newcomers M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray worked on the second-team.

"There are a lot of different faces, but it's definitely an opportunity for me to focus and work on the mental aspects of things," Conte said.

"Rehab is going well. I'm just taking it every day as it comes and I think it's going as good as it can go. The most important thing is I feel good."

Starting left guard Matt Slauson (shoulder) was also present at Halas Hall on Tuesday, but failed to participate. Weak side linebacker Lance Briggs took part in individual drills but left the field at the beginning of team drills and did not return. Briggs left the field under his own power without the assistance of any member of the club's medical staff. Briggs did not appear to be physically injured.

Veteran cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff missed Tuesday's voluntary session.

Packers offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
10:00
AM ET
» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple months away, we assess the Green Bay Packers' offseason moves.

[+] EnlargeDom Capers
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsDespite the Packers' defense ranking in the bottom third of the league at the end of the 2013 season, the team has decided to keep coordinator Dom Capers.
Best move: Sometimes, the best moves are ones that do not get made. In this case, not firing defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose defense collapsed late last season, could prove to be the best thing the Packers did this offseason. Instead, he and coach Mike McCarthy spent several months examining every aspect of the Packers' scheme and personnel and made some changes that could turn out to be successful. They made a commitment to becoming more multiple rather than just playing base on first down, nickel on second down and dime on third down as they did so often last season. McCarthy said he and Capers have installed safeguards that will allow them to vary their defensive packages even if injuries hit as they did last season. That's a far better plan than junking everything Capers built over the past five years and starting over.

Riskiest move: Again, this is something the Packers did not do -- upgrade their inside linebackers. To be fair, the two players in the draft best suited to do that -- Ohio State's Ryan Shazier and Alabama's C.J. Mosley -- were gone by the time the Packers picked at No. 21 in the first round. Last year, the Packers stood pat at the safety position and hoped that they'd find a player among the returning group of M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian and Sean Richardson. It never happened, and the defense suffered because of it. Unless Jamari Lattimore or Sam Barrington made a big jump, it looks as though the Packers are going to stick with A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones on the inside.

Most surprising move: You can count on two things from general manager Ted Thompson -- he does not sign flashy, expensive free agents and he will always wheel and deal on draft weekend, usually to acquire more picks. Not anymore. Two months after Thompson wrote a check for a $7.5 million signing bonus to bring in pass-rusher Julius Peppers, he stood pat and used all nine of his original selections during the draft.

Most underrated move: For a team beset by injuries three of the past four seasons, perhaps the most important thing the Packers did this offseason was enter into an agreement with the tech firm Catapult Sports, which helps teams to compile data on athletic exertion as it relates to fatigue/preventable injuries. More than a dozen NFL teams are using Catapult or a similar GPS-based system to monitor players during practice.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When ESPN's three days of live draft coverage finally goes off the air Saturday evening, 256 players will have been drafted.

But player acquisition will be far from over.

In fact, some NFL personnel executives have said the most stressful part of draft weekend is the process of signing undrafted free agents as soon as the seventh round finishes.

In a matter of a few hours, some teams sign as many as 20 undrafted rookie free agents. It's a process the Green Bay Packers take seriously. It's why they use many of their allotted pre-draft visits on players likely to go undrafted. They consider it part of the recruiting process.

But they aren't the only ones who actively recruit potential rookie free agents. The Seattle Seahawks distributed a 12-page brochure to agents showing them how the team covets and strongly considers undrafted free agents for its roster.

Among the charts in the brochure is one that shows preseason playing time for undrafted free agents and another with the percentage of undrafted free agents who make the 53-man roster.

In terms of playing time, last preseason, the Seahawks led the league in playing time percentage by undrafted rookies at 36.2 percent, according to their research. The Packers were second at 33.6 percent.

On that page, the Seahawks noted: "If your client doesn't get on the field in the preseason, he'll have a tougher time making that team's roster or any roster at all. Last season, the Seahawks ranked No. 1 in total offensive and defensive playing time by undrafted rookies."

When it comes to making the roster, the Seahawks said 22 percent of their undrafted free agents since 2010 have spent time on their active roster, which ranks eighth in the NFL, and according to the brochure, “the Seahawks have been selective in the number of UDFAs they sign each year. The team has signed 68 of them, which ranks 17th."

The Packers actually have a higher percentage of undrafted free agents who appeared on their active roster at various points during the season since 2010, according to the chart, at 24 percent, which is tied for fourth in the NFL.

The Packers have had at least three undrafted free agents make their opening-day roster each of the last four years. In that time, 13 undrafted free agents have made the Week 1 roster, which is tied for the third most in that span behind only St. Louis (17) and Cleveland (16), according to the Packers.

Here are the undrafted free agents that have made the Packers' roster coming out of training camp the last four years:

2013: S Chris Banjo, OLB Andy Mulumba, Lane Taylor.

2012: T Don Barclay, WR Jarrett Boykin, OLB Dezman Moses, S Sean Richardson.

2011: S M.D. Jennings, LB Jamari Lattimore, OLB Vic So'oto.

2010: G Nick McDonald, CB Sam Shields, OLB Frank Zombo.
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.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisHa 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.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The addition of the 34-year-old Julius Peppers might be a short-term fix for the Green Bay Packers' defense.

Peppers
But when it comes to next month's NFL draft, the Packers' most significant free-agent signing since Charles Woodson in 2006 allows general manager Ted Thompson more flexibility with his early-round selections.

So says ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.

"I think it does," Kiper said. "It gives them that hole filler and that pass-rusher that you need."

Even if Peppers is only a one- or two-year player, it gives the Packers the ability to address other areas of need, especially on defense.

"I think safety, tight end, inside linebacker are positions they could address and could end up falling their way and could fill those major needs," Kiper said.

Let's start with safety, a position the Packers have largely ignored over the past year. They're looking for a playmaker to fill a crater-sized hole at free safety. Two players who started at safety last season, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, aren't even on the roster anymore. The Packers let Jennings walk as a restricted free agent and cut McMillian before last season ended.

Kiper believes one of the consensus top-two safeties in the draft could be available to Thompson when the Packers pick at No. 21.

"You look at Calvin Pryor from Louisville; I don't think [Alabama’s Ha Ha] Clinton-Dix will be there, but Calvin Pryor could and he's a heck of a football player," Kiper said.

While Kiper said he doesn't think the top tight end, Eric Ebron of North Carolina, will be there when the Packers pick, it's possible the top inside linebacker, C.J. Mosley of Alabama, will be there.

"You can make an argument he'll go a little earlier," Kiper said of Mosley. "If Mosley and Pryor are there, those would be two guys that fill areas of need and are good football players."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Micah Hyde played only a part-time role last season. Casey Hayward played virtually no role at all.

Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy expects that to be different this season.

Hayward
Hyde
That could be the next step toward fixing the problems that hampered the secondary last season.

As a rookie, Hyde played 39.4 percent of the defensive snaps, and almost all of it came as either the nickel or dime defensive back covering or blitzing from the slot.

He rarely stepped foot on the field when defensive coordinator Dom Capers employed his base 3-4 scheme.

That, apparently, will change.

"Micah Hyde deserves the opportunity to be an every-down player on our defense," McCarthy told reporters this week at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Fla. "And as we go into 2014, that's our responsibility as a coaching staff to create those competitive opportunities for him to get that done. I got to a point in the season where Micah was standing on the sidelines too much."

Hyde has shown a penchant for finding the football even though he dropped what could have been a game-changing interception in the final moments of the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. That's something the Packers lacked, especially from their safeties last season. The Packers were the only team in the NFL last season that did not get an interception from a safety.

They already are assured of fielding a new starting free safety this season. They let 16-game starter M.D. Jennings walk in free agency, opening the door for Hyde to play that spot at least some of the time. He could assume a role similar to the one Charles Woodson played in his final season with the Packers in 2012, when he played safety in the base defense and as a slot corner in the sub packages.

"We're going to give Micah the opportunity to play on all three downs -- whether that's corner, nickel, dime, safety," McCarthy said. "That's the versatility I think he brings to our football team."

Like Hyde, Hayward played almost exclusively in the slot as a rookie in 2012. After leading all rookies with six interceptions in 2012, his second season was a washout. He played only three games because of a recurring hamstring injury that he first pulled on the eve of training camp and which finally ended his season on Nov. 23.

In an interview just days after this past season, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said he had no doubt that Hayward also could line up on the outside as a true cover corner in addition to playing in the slot.

"And he will be given the opportunity to do that," Whitt said.

That plan remains intact.

"I look for Casey to come in and try to compete to be on the field for three downs," McCarthy said this week. "He had a heck of a rookie year. He missed all of last year with an injury. My understanding is he'll be full go once he comes back. But I won't know until we put those guys through physicals when they come back the 22nd [of April for the offseason program]. I would think he'd be ready to go."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Sometimes, NFL players outperform their contracts.

Without tearing up those deals, there is a way for players who fit that description to earn more money. It’s called the NFL's performance-based pay distribution in which each team can allot a total of $3.46 million in additional play to its players.

It typically benefits players in their first NFL contracts or minimum-salaried free-agent signings who become key contributors.

For example, Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari, a fourth-round pick with a base salary of $405,000 last year, will receive an additional $256,882.22 in performance-based pay, according to documents obtained by ESPN.com. Bakhtiari started every game last season as a rookie. He received the largest pay increases among Packers' players. According to the NFL, those payments will be made on April 1, 2016.

The smallest distribution to a Packers' player went to backup tackle Derek Sherrod, who will receive $2,154.55. He was active for seven games but only took six snaps on offense all season.

Here’s a list of the top-10 and bottom-10 performance-based bonuses on the Packers’ roster:

Top 10
Bottom 10
Lamarr Houston's five-year, $35 million contract was a start, but the Bears had been sending out clear signals the organization intended to further address defensive end via free agency.

Twenty-eight-year-old Willie Young fit the mold of what the Bears were searching for.

While the Bears never had serious interest in former Minnesota Vikings star pass-rusher Jared Allen, Young’s three-year, $9 million signing allows general manager Phil Emery to continue his mission of getting younger on defense, while at the same time stealing a productive player from the division rival Detroit Lions.

[+] EnlargeWillie Young
AP Photo/Richard LipskiWillie Young posted 47 tackles and three sacks last season for the Detroit Lions.
Young started 15 games for the Lions last year and recorded 47 tackles and three sacks. But the 6-foot-4, 251-pound edge rusher has a reputation for being extremely disruptive when asked to pressure the opposing quarterback.

Young also has ties to Bears coach Marc Trestman from their time spent together at NC State.

To add some perspective, Julius Peppers was scheduled to earn $14 million in 2014 and eat up $18,183,333 worth of cap space. Young lands in Chicago at a fraction of the cost, and at six years younger than Peppers, figures to have a much greater impact on the Bears’ defense for the next several seasons.

Young probably isn’t a household name in the NFL, but the deal looks solid on the surface.

For all the criticism directed toward the Bears’ secondary in 2013, notably the safeties, the front four needed the most work in the offseason. Houston and Young represent a significant upgrade over what the Bears lined up last year at defensive end when the club barely managed to muster a pass rush or effectively stop the run.

The Bears simply weren’t in a position to wait and see when Corey Wootton recovered from offseason hip surgery to make their second move at defensive end in free agency. Maybe Wootton is back in the mix when healthy (June or July), but with a thin crop of defensive ends expected to be available in May’s NFL draft, the Bears knew they had to be aggressive in free agency in regards to the position.

The respective contracts of Houston and Young speaks to the dire situation the Bears found themselves in on the defensive line. In total, the Bears awarded deals totaling eight years, $44 million to defensive ends, while safeties Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings, linebackers D.J. Williams and Jordan Senn and wide receiver Domenik Hixon all received modest deals by comparison.

Instead of rolling the dice on older and somewhat more established defensive ends on the market, the Bears secured the bookends of their defensive line for the future.

In free agency, it isn’t always about reeling in the biggest names. It’s about making the moves that make the most sense for the health of the franchise.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Perhaps he can truly play, but a couple of early reviews concerning new Chicago Bears safety M.D. Jennings don’t inspire much confidence in him becoming an impact contributor in 2014.

Jennings
Jennings, 25, started all 16 games last season at safety for the Packers but never produced a turnover, despite contributing 74 tackles. Still, Jennings wasn't a priority for the Packers in free agency, as the club wanted to upgrade at that position and opted not to extend a tender offer to the restricted free agent.

Keep in mind Jennings started in Green Bay’s last 26 games. According to ESPN NFL Nation Packers reporter Rob Demovsky, the club had hoped to replace Jennings last season but didn't possess any better options on the roster.

One personnel director called Chicago’s acquisition of Jennings, “probably nothing more than a depth signing,” adding that if Green Bay “thought he could play, they wouldn't have let him go.” Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spoke to NFL scouts about some of Green Bay’s free agents. Here’s what one had to say about Jennings:

“Maybe somebody would [sign] him just to see what he could do. But it’s not like he’s played very well. I’d take a look at him because I think he’s athletic enough. I’m just not sure why it doesn’t always click. He’s definitely that [small]. I don’t think anybody takes a shot at him. He doesn’t run well enough. It’s right of first refusal at best [in terms of a potential tender offer]. He’s a backup player that got forced into a starting situation. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you got him as a good backup you’re happy with that. I see a backup talent despite his starting experience.”

Perhaps that’s why the Bears brought in Jennings: to see what he could do, and at worst, use him as a backup safety and special-teams contributor although initially he’ll compete for a starting job.

Jennings came into the league as an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas State and has posted 133 career tackles, an interception and three pass breakups.
Jennings
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It's official: The Green Bay Packers will have a new starting free safety next season.

We don't know who it will be, but we know it won't be M.D. Jennings.

After starting every game for the Packers last season, Jennings wasn't even offered a restricted free-agent tender before Tuesday's deadline. On Wednesday, he signed a one-year contract with the Chicago Bears.

Given how ineffective Jennings was last season, the decision not to tender him was expected. Although Jennings was a full-time starter last season, the Packers tried to replace him at various points, using Chris Banjo early in the season and Sean Richardson late in the year.

Jennings was part of a safety group that failed to come up with a single interception last season. The Packers were the only team in the NFL that did not get an interception from one of their safeties in 2013.

Jennings, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Arkansas State, will be best remembered for being on the wrong end of the Fail Mary play against the Seattle Seahawks in 2012. Jennings thought he intercepted a pass that instead was ruled the game-winning touchdown by Golden Tate.

The Packers were not involved in any of the first wave of safeties to sign shortly after free agency opened Tuesday. Six safeties -- Donte Whitner, T.J. Ward, Antoine Bethea, Malcolm Jenkins, Jairus Byrd and Mike Mitchell -- all signed significant contracts within the first 24 hours of free agency with Byrd's deal (six years, $64 million with the New Orleans Saints) topping the market.

Last month at the scouting combine, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Micah Hyde likely will play some at safety this season, but it's unclear if the second-year defensive back will make a full-time transition from cornerback.

Jennings might not be the only Packers player on the Bears’ radar. According to the Chicago Tribune, they have interest in Packers outside linebacker/defensive end Mike Neal, who is an unrestricted free agent.

Also on Wednesday, the Packers set up their first free-agent visit. Former Houston Texans tight end Owen Daniels will meet with the Packers. Daniels, who played at the University of Wisconsin, was released by the Texans last week in a cost-cutting move. Daniels missed all but five games last season because of a broken leg.

The Packers are in the market for a tight end because they could lose both Jermichael Finley (who is visiting the Seahawks) and free agent Andrew Quarless.

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