NFL Nation: Darren Perry

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Thirteen months ago, the Green Bay Packers gave Morgan Burnett an $8.25 million signing bonus as part of a four-year, $24.75 million contract extension.

Now, there's a chance he might not be among their top-two performers at the safety position this summer.

In fact, if there's one starter in danger of losing his job, it might be Burnett.

[+] EnlargeMicah Hyde
AP Photo/Morry GashMicah Hyde has impressed the coaching staff with his transition from cornerback to safety.
The fifth-year veteran won't play in Saturday's preseason opener at the Tennessee Titans, opening the door for rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to start alongside Micah Hyde, who has made what coach Mike McCarthy said is a "seamless" transition from cornerback to safety.

The way Hyde has performed throughout the offseason and during the first two weeks of training camp, it's hard to imagine him losing his grip a starting job. And if Clinton-Dix performs like a first-round draft pick should, he will warrant playing time, too.

Throw in third-year pro Sean Richardson – who garnered unprompted praise from McCarthy on Thursday -- and combine that with the fact that Burnett underachieved last season and now has an oblique strain that kept him out of practice most of the week, and there are suddenly all sorts of possibilities at the position.

"Anything's possible," Packers safeties coach Darren Perry said when asked about those scenarios.

He will know more after the Packers have a couple of preseason games in the books, but at this point Perry could not rule out that Burnett might not be among their top-two safeties.

"These guys haven't played in one game [at safety],” Perry said. "Micah's playing a new position. Ha Ha is coming straight out of college. We know what the expectations are, but again, this is the NFL and you should never underestimate this league and the challenges that are out there if you're not ready to play. We haven't done anything. We haven't tackled anybody to the ground. We haven't seen guys play hurt, there's so many factors that go in that these games will showcase, and that's what we're looking forward to seeing.

"But I feel very good about what we have and I can’t wait to see the guys play, because they've been working their butts off and they want to show what they're capable of being."

It would be a drastic change if the Packers were to take Burnett out of the starting lineup. When he healthy, he has been a starter ever since he came into the league as a third-round pick in 2010.

On Thursday, McCarthy said he considers Burnett a starter but then added, "We don't get caught on 11 players, especially [when] the emphasis for our whole defense is to play more players."

There might be room for all of them on the field, at times. The Packers have practiced with a package that included Burnett, Clinton-Dix and Hyde on the field at the same time.

It's been a tough start to camp for Burnett. He missed a practice in the opening week because of an ankle injury and then strained his oblique muscle on Monday.

"It's part of the game; nicks and bruises are going to come along with the game," Burnett said. "It's just all about getting the proper treatment and getting back out there."
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."
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Ted Thompson ignored the safety position last year.

He did not make the same mistake again.

A year after the Green Bay Packers general manager watched 22 safeties come off the board in the draft without making a move at the position, Thompson let only one go by before he pounced on Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at No. 21 in Thursday's first round.

In all, there were four safeties taken in the first round and Thompson had his choice of all but Louisville's Calvin Pryor, who went three picks earlier to the New York Jets.

In taking Clinton-Dix, the 6-foot-1 3/8 junior entrant, Thompson passed on Washington State's Deone Bucannon (who went 27th to the Arizona Cardinals) and Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward (who went 30th to the San Francisco 49ers).

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillThe addition of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is sure to boost a Packers safety spot that didn't record an interception last season.
After watching three of their likely defensive targets -- Pryor and inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and C.J. Mosley -- get snatched up, nerves had to be high in the Packers' draft room. Had Clinton-Dix not been there, perhaps Thompson would have gone in a different direction -- another position or a trade down. Or maybe he would have taken one of the other safeties.

Instead, he did not have to change his strategy or make a reach pick.

He handed defensive coordinator Dom Capers and safeties coach Darren Perry the chance to make up for the ills of last season, when the Packers were the only NFL team that did not get a single interception from the safety position.

"We have to be better," Perry said shortly after the Packers made their pick. "We weren't good enough, and that starts right here with me. That starts with our coaching staff, and we recognize that. We don't shy away from that. It's going to be a great challenge, and we will be better, no question in my mind. I'm looking forward to it."

Clinton-Dix should make Perry's job easier. He combined to intercept seven passes in his final two seasons at Alabama, including five as a sophomore when he played more free safety. As a junior, he played a more versatile role that included some strong safety.

"I think he's a real all-purpose kind of safety," Thompson said. "He's shown an ability to cover down in the slot. He's good in [run] support, a physical player. Also can play well in the back end."

The Packers now can move Morgan Burnett, who played mostly strong safety last year, to free safety if they were so inclined. When the Packers drafted Burnett in the third round of the 2010 draft, they raved about his ball skills, having picked off 14 passes in three seasons at Georgia Tech. Burnett has six interceptions in four NFL seasons, but none of them came last year.

"Morgan, he was kind of forced into that role as a strong safety," Perry said. "But I think Morgan has the ability to play both, both of these guys [can], along with the other guys that we have back there. I think the competition is going to be great."
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.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Green Bay Packers want more production from strong safety Morgan Burnett.

That’s no secret.

But during an interview at his hotel during a break from the NFL scouting combine, Packers coach Mike McCarthy offered a defense – and an honest assessment – of Burnett’s play in 2013 after he signed a four-year, $24.75 million contract last July.

[+] EnlargeBurnett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe Packers will be looking for more aggression from safety Morgan Burnett in 2014.
“You know, I don’t think it’s, ‘Oh my God, he’s a bust,’” McCarthy said. “It’s nothing like that. I think the guy needs to – and I think he will – he’ll be coached to make more impact plays. That’ll be his emphasis next year, and he’s the type of guy that will do it. The guy will go about it. He’s a pro. I wish he’d be more assertive, but that’s not really his personality, either. He’s a soft-spoken young man.”

Burnett’s play was emblematic of the entire Packers’ safety group, which for the first time in at least 50 years failed to intercept at least one pass in a season.

But McCarthy insisted that was the only aspect of Burnett’s game that was lacking.

“Really, the quarterback part of it, the communication, I thought he had a very good year,” McCarthy said. “Productivity and tackling, he had over 100 tackles. How many did he have?”

According to totals kept by the Packers’ coaches, Burnett had 104.

“So that’s a productive year,” McCarthy said. “It’s the play-making ability on the ball. Is he a product of what’s been going on back there? [Playing] Cautious? Whether to run through the ball carrier, receiver, or make a break on the ball?”

Maybe it’s confidence.

McCarthy cited a play in the wild-card playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers in which Burnett was in position to break up the 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis in the fourth quarter. Burnett broke on the ball but looked like he was trying to swat a fly rather than making an aggressive move toward the ball.

“I look at the San Francisco game, he’s got to make that play,” McCarthy said. “To me, it looked like he didn’t know whether to go hit him or go for the ball.

“That’s not a confident [action],” McCarthy added. “I mean, playmaking, you go get the football.”

That’s something McCarthy and safeties coach Darren Perry discussed at length during their postseason player evaluation meetings.

“I think he’s fully capable of doing it,” McCarthy said. “Morgan’s going to do everything he can. He needs to be more assertive in play-making opportunities. He did not have a good year in that particular area. There was a lot of production otherwise, too, but … what safeties do they talk about? The ones that make the big hit or the ones that make interceptions. And until he starts doing that, they’re not going to talk about him that way. They don’t talk about 100-tackle safeties anymore.”

It might help Burnett if the Packers had a more productive player next to Burnett. M.D. Jennings started every game at free safety, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers also worked in second-year pro Sean Richardson at that position late in the season.

“We need more production next to Morgan,” McCarthy said, “which I think would definitely help him.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Assistant special teams coaches in the NFL are usually neophyte coaches or former players trying to break into the business.

Rarely are they 59-year-olds who have held head coaching jobs at two prominent top-level colleges and also NFL coordinator jobs.

It wasn't lost on Ron Zook that his new position as the Green Bay Packers assistant special teams coach was a bit unusual, when he met with reporters on Monday for the first time since he was hired last week.

[+] EnlargeRon Zook
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Packers will turn to Ron Zook to help with special teams.
“Coaching's coaching; I wanted the opportunity to get back in the profession, I really did,” said Zook, the former Florida and Illinois head coach who had been out of football since he was fired in 2011 after seven seasons with the Illini.

“The first year out, I probably needed it just to kind of collect your thoughts and so forth. This past year, I really began to miss it. I told some people, one of the most exciting things for me is getting back into coaching for the reasons I got into coaching: because I love the game, I love the camaraderie, I love being around the players and the coaches and trying to help get everybody on the same page trying to do the same thing.”

Even Zook isn't quite sure exactly what his role will be, but coach Mike McCarthy knows he wants more attention paid to special teams, which struggled at times last season. McCarthy didn't feel that the problems warranted a complete change, which is why he retained special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, but he appears set on dedicating more resources to it. He also has assigned Jason Simmons, a coaching administrator the last three seasons, to assist with special teams.

“I wanted to put more of an emphasis on that area,” McCarthy said. “One of our challenges ever year with youth, some of the injuries we've had with younger players playing early, there's a lot of one-on-one time that goes into special teams coaching. Everybody in the league goes through it. We just want to maximize that structure as far as to make sure our players are getting the one-on-one time, and I thought Ron brought a whole different dimension to the room.”

Zook was a natural fit for McCarthy. The two worked together with the New Orleans Saints for two seasons (2000 and 2001) when McCarthy was the offensive coordinator and Zook the defensive coordinator before Zook returned to the college ranks to coach the Gators.

In fact, Zook and McCarthy lived together during their early days with the Saints before Zook's family moved to New Orleans. Even after Zook's wife and kids joined him, they lived down the street from McCarthy.

Packers assistant head coach/linebackers coach Winston Moss also was with them in New Orleans, and Zook coached Packers safeties coach Darren Perry during their days with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Zook was the special teams coach from 1996-98.

“So you've got guys that you know and everybody's looking for the same thing, and that's to win,” Zook said. “That was what was important to me, being in a situation where you had a chance to win and being around good people.”

McCarthy mentioned Zook's energy and enthusiasm, something that was apparent throughout his 20-minute session with reporters on Monday. Zook spoke openly about both his successes, most notably the 2007 Rose Bowl team at Illinois; and his failures, being fired by both Florida and Illinois.

Zook also explained how he has spent the past two years out of football, working part-time as an analyst for CBS and also at a bank in Florida.

But perhaps it was what he did in his free time that was instrumental in his return to the NFL. He would make regular trips across the state to Tampa, Fla., where he would spend time watching film with ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden.

“I've spent I can't tell you how many hours, spent an awful lot of time with Jon Gruden,” Zook said. “I'd drive to Tampa, and we'd study football. We'd get ready for the draft, study programs that way, what's going on in both college and the NFL. So I was able to stay involved with the game in terms of the X's and O's part of it. But you miss the relationship side of it."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Dom Capers appreciated the support from his players, especially from a veteran like defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, but the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator knows that alone won’t fix the problems that have befallen his unit over the past five weeks.

It will take much more than that for the veteran NFL coach to dig the Packers out of the bottom third of the NFL defensive rankings and help them salvage their season. But he has no plans on giving up on this season or any future seasons.

The 63-year-old, two-time former NFL head coach and the Packers' defensive coordinator since 2009 said Friday that he intends to keep coaching beyond this season, and that retirement is not in his foreseeable future despite increased criticism of the team’s defensive performance.

[+] EnlargeDom Capers
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsDom Capers' defense enters Sunday's game ranked 24th in total defense, 26th against the run, and 22nd against the pass.
“If you’ve known me for my whole career, I don’t get caught up in a lot of those things because I know you’re going to go through periods like that,” Capers said. “I’ll just tell you, if I didn’t think I could do it as well now as I did 20 years ago, I wouldn’t do it. That’s just me. I’ve got to feel as though I’ve got something to give, and I feel that way. I don’t feel that’s changed one bit.”

But the performance of his defense has. Going into the Week 8 game against the Chicago Bears, the Packers were on the verge of cracking the top 10 in the defensive rankings. They were 11th in total yards allowed per game, and their run defense was fourth after spending the two previous weeks at No. 3.

Then quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on the first series against the Bears, and everything changed.

Except Capers doesn’t see it that way, or at least he refused to use it as an excuse for the fact that his defense heads into Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons ranked 24th in total defense, 26th against the run and 22nd against the pass.

“I don’t think that has anything to do with us,” Capers said. “We’ve got to look at ourselves, and we’ve got to take care of our business on defense.”

That starts with the run defense.

After allowing just 474 yards rushing in the first six games combined, the Packers gave up nearly that many in their past two games. The Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions combined to rush for 473 yards against Capers’ defense in Weeks 13 and 14.

“It’s the first area we’ve got to get squared away,” Capers said.

Capers’ staff includes two of his former players, outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene and safeties coach Darren Perry. Both have known Capers for decades. They believed in his system as players, and they still believe in it as coaches.

“Just a few weeks ago, I thought we had a top-10 defense, or at least close to it, and top five against the run,” Greene said. “It’s not like Coach Dom came in and changed the game plan and put a whole new system in, you know what I mean? We’re doing the same things here. It’s not like he’s putting us in just a horrible position that we’re going to fail. Our defense just needs to play together as a unit. When they have the opportunity, they just need to make that play. You need to fit together.”

Despite an array of missed tackles, blown coverages and fundamental breakdowns, Capers said he has seen no signs that players have begun to point fingers. The fact that a veteran like Pickett was emphatic in his support for his coach meant something to Capers.

“As long as you stay strong from within, then you’ve got a chance to pull yourself through the thing, because every team in the league is going to go through tough stretches,” Capers said. “But if you don’t, if you come apart from inside, you really don’t have any chance. So you’ve got to stay confident in what you’re doing. You’ve got to make sure that you point out to guys where we have to get better. Everybody has to accept responsibility. My responsibility is to get this defense better, to get us where we want to be.”

Said Perry: “Have we played up to our level expectations this year? No. We’ve had our moments where we’ve looked good, but we haven’t been consistent enough, but that’s not a reflection on coach Dom. I’ve got nothing but the utmost respect for him. You don’t become a bad coach because of a not-so-good season, and when things don’t go the way it’s planned. We’re always subject to criticism when things don’t go well in this profession. That comes with it, and all of us know that and understand that. That’s part of our profession.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It wasn’t until Nick Collins' fourth NFL season that he became a major playmaker for the Green Bay Packers.

The team’s former safety intercepted just four passes in his first three NFL seasons.

In Year 4, the 2008 season, Collins picked off seven passes to begin a three-year run of Pro Bowl appearances. In those three seasons, he combined for 17 regular-season interceptions before his career was cut short by a neck injury in Week 2 of the 2011 season.

[+] EnlargeMorgan Burnett
AP Photo/David StlukaPackers defensive back Morgan Burnett is still without an interception this season.
The Packers were hoping for the same kind of progression by safety Morgan Burnett, whose interception totals in his first three seasons (six) actually surpassed Collins’ first three seasons. They were banking on it when they gave Burnett a four-year, $24.75 million contract that included an $8.5 million signing bonus in July.

But late in Burnett’s fourth season, it hasn’t happened yet.

While the coaches have vigorously defended Burnett’s play, he’s been noticeably absent in the big-play department. He doesn’t have an interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery in seven games this season since returning from a hamstring injury that sidelined him in Weeks 1-3.

“He’s a good football player, and we have no doubts about him,” Packers safeties coach Darren Perry said. “We just have got to keep him going and making sure as a unit that we’re playing together and we’re not giving up the big play, because that’s where you want to make sure that you’re not slipping, because that just demoralizes a defense.”

Burnett has been at least partially responsible for giving up big plays in each of the past two games. Against the Philadelphia Eagles, he misplayed the coverage and then collided with cornerback Tramon Williams on DeSean Jackson’s 55-yard touchdown pass. He and Williams also got crossed up in last Sunday’s game against the Giants, when they allowed a 35-yard completion to Hakeem Nicks.

“My main goal is just to go out and do my job and be accountable,” Burnett said. “That’s all I can do, just go out and do my job and be accountable, because you’ve got 10 other guys that’s relying on you to do your job. That’s my main focus. I don’t pay attention to anything else.”

Big plays have been hard to come by for the entire defense. The Packers are tied for a league-low four interceptions this season. In Dom Capers’ previous four seasons as defensive coordinator, the Packers led the league in interceptions with 103.

When asked if he needs more big plays from Burnett, Capers said: “I think everybody on defense when you haven’t made them. I think our pressure has been consistent, but the thing that’s been missing that’s kind of been our staple is taking the ball away. Up till this year, our opponent quarterback ratings were in the top five, we’re in the top five taking the ball away. We have to get back to that. We know we’re capable of doing it. We just haven’t done it.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson doesn’t do everything the way his mentor, Ron Wolf, did things when he ran the Packers from 1991 to 2001.

But when it comes to certain things, like height requirements for defensive backs, Thompson rarely wavers from Wolf’s approach. Ever since Wolf used a first-round draft pick on 5-foot-9 cornerback Terrell Buckley, who turned out to be a bust, Wolf vowed never to take another short defensive back.

So what in the world is Chris Banjo, a safety who measured 5-foot-9.6 for scouts at his pro day, doing with the Packers?

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay's Chris Banjo
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsChris Banjo has the Packers re-thinking their team height requirement for defensive backs.
For one thing, Banjo was a low-risk acquisition. The Packers signed him to a minimum contract four days into training camp after he was cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars. But now that Banjo has played his way into consideration for a roster spot, the Packers will have to decide whether to allow his height to become a deciding factor.

“There’s a pretty good guy in Pittsburgh that’s had a Hall of Fame career, and he wouldn’t have met our height requirements probably at the safety spot,” Packers safeties coach Darren Perry said this week.

Of course, Perry, a former Steelers safety and assistant coach, was referring to Troy Polamalu.

“He’s only about 5-10, if that,” said Perry, who coached Polamalu for four seasons. “He’s barely 5-10.”

When Polamalu came out of USC in 2003, he was measured at 5-10.1.

Not that Perry was comparing Banjo’s game to Polamalu’s, but his point was that sometimes it’s worth pushing the limits.

“I guess he doesn’t quite meet the Mendoza line for some of the requirements that they’ve had here in terms of defensive backs,” Perry said. “But I think sometimes you’ve got to look beyond that and look at the player’s ability and what he can do on the football field. That’s something that you have to be careful of not getting too caught up in.”

Banjo, a 23-year-old who shares the same alma mater (SMU) as Thompson, is the leading candidate for the fourth -- and final -- safety position on the roster. He is expected to get extended playing time in Thursday’s preseason finale at Kansas City because starting safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring) won’t play.

Although Banjo has been with the Packers for only a month, his determination became apparent early on. The son of immigrants from Nigeria who settled in Houston, Banjo couldn’t crack into the NFL after graduating from SMU in 2012. He had tryouts with the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers but never landed a contract. It wasn’t until the spring of 2013 that he got an offer from the Jaguars, but he never made it to training camp. They cut him on the eve of the first practice last month.

“It’s something that I’ve been told 'No,' that I wouldn’t be able to do,” Banjo said of making it in the NFL. “Now, I have an opportunity to excel and prove a lot of people wrong, something my family believed that I can do from Day 1.”

In practice this past week, quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed a pass that was thrown over Banjo’s head while he was in coverage. The play again brought into question Banjo’s height. But Perry was quick to note that Banjo was actually playing the nickel cornerback spot -- not his natural safety position -- for the first time when that pass was completed on him.

“I think some of it had to do with the quarterback that was throwing the ball,” Perry said. “We watched that play, and he can’t do anything about his height.”

And that takes us back to Wolf’s point about small defensive backs. They will always have certain limitations. However, Perry believes there are some advantages for a small safety.

“We’re always talking about pad level and so forth,” Perry said. “When you’re 5-9 like he is, you naturally have that, and he’s been able to make some plays.

“You might get some situations where you get against bigger tight ends and they may put the ball in the back-shoulder area where he may be at a little bit of a disadvantage, but for the numbers of times that happens, I don’t think you can really worry about the height being a factor.”

Could be start of East Bay Packers

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
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Don’t expect the Oakland Raiders to hire a new coach any time soon.

As it sits now, I expect the top candidates to be on the Green Bay Packers staff. I think new Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie – who came to Oakland from Green Bay – will consider Packers assistants Winston Moss, Joe Philbin and Darren Perry. However, none of these coaches can be hired until the Packers’ season is over — which could be as late as Feb. 6, the day after the Super Bowl. The Packers host the Giants in a divisional playoff game Sunday.

Expect other candidates to emerge, but I think the search starts with that trio. Former Green Bay (and Raiders) executive Ron Wolf — who, along with former Packers and Raiders personnel exec Ken Herock, has been advising new Raiders owner Mark Davis since his father's death — is comfortable with those coaches, and with the whole idea McKenzie being able to hire his own coach should be based on his feelings about the man he brings in. Wolf and Herock were very high on McKenzie, a former Raiders linebacker.

Expect the Green Bay connection to continue. Yes, we may be seeing the birth of the East Bay Packers. What’s wrong with that? The Packers are a model organization. I couldn’t think of a better team to emulate.

Because McKenzie has both Raiders and Packers ties, he could be bring an interesting blend of knowledge and direction to the Raiders moving forward.

And that’s why I expect him to stick with his roots and end up hiring one of the Green Bay assistants. By the way, Moss would be another example of having both Oakland and Green Bay roots. He, too, is a former Raiders linebacker.

It may take a while, but expect McKenzie to go to Titletown for the Raiders’ next chapter.
The Oakland Raiders' decision to fire coach Hue Jackson seems likely to impact the NFC North in a substantive way. The move confirms that new general manager Reggie McKenzie has been granted substantial authority by owner Mark Davis, and makes it likely that several Green Bay Packers assistant coaches will be candidates for the job.

There is no guarantee that McKenzie will hire someone from the Packers organization, but he spent the past 17 years in Green Bay and established some deep relationships as a matter of course. The Packers have two assistants with ties to the Raiders -- assistant head coach/inside linebackers Winston Moss and safeties coach Darren Perry -- and my understanding is that McKenzie also has a strong friendship with offensive coordinator Joe Philbin.

It's not clear how Philbin's family tragedy this week would impact his availability if McKenzie is interested. But Moss, who played for the Raiders from 1991-94, has long been considered a future head coach. Perry, a Raiders assistant from 2007-08, is also well regarded.

We'll keep you updated. McKenzie is scheduled to have his introductory news conference later Tuesday.

What faces Reggie McKenzie

January, 6, 2012
1/06/12
7:15
PM ET
Green Bay Packers executive Reggie McKenzie is expected to start his new job next week as the first general manager of the Oakland Raiders in the post-Al Davis era.

He is taking over a unique situation.

Unlike most teams that hire a new general manager, the Raiders’ focus will be on improving the current team rather than implementing wholesale roster changes.

The keys for the Raiders -- who are coming off back-to-back 8-8 season and is tied for the longest playoff drought in the NFL -- is better play by quarterback Carson Palmer, the healthy return of running back Darren McFadden and improved play on defense.

Assuming McKenzie sticks with Hue Jackson as coach -- there have been rumblings Jackson could be in trouble (a longshot) -- the Raiders’ first order of business will likely be hiring a defensive coordinator. Chuck Bresnahan and some members of his staff are expected to be fired.

Perhaps McKenzie will try to bring a Green Bay assistant such as Darren Perry or Winston Moss with him, although the head coach usually plays a major role in hiring his assistants.

The Raiders have some free agents to address, including running back Michael Bush and safety Tyvon Branch. With Bush likely getting interest as a starter elsewhere, McKenzie may have to decide whether it gives Bush the franchise tag or let him walk.

It is going to be a quiet draft season for McKenzie as the Raiders currently only have fifth and sixth-round picks. They should also get two or three compensatory picks, yet none will be higher than the No. 97 pick near the end of the third round.

While McKenzie may not make a bunch of first-year splashes in Oakland, his team doesn’t really need more than some tweaking and in-house improvements.
It’s not official, but it appears Green Bay executive Reggie McKenzie will be hired as the new general manager of the Oakland Raiders. McKenzie is the first new decision maker in Oakland after the October death of owner Al Davis.

Here are some initial thoughts:
  • It’s no surprise. McKenzie emerged as the leading candidate shortly after Davis’ death. He clearly impressed the Raiders in his Wednesday interview. While they were expected to look at several other candidates, it was McKenzie all the way.
  • What about Hue Jackson? ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that how much power McKenzie will have will be determined. But remember McKenzie was in a good situation in Green Bay and he would have had other opportunities in the future. He would have likely taken this only if the Raiders gave him significant say in the organization.
  • Where will it leave Jackson? He had been the primary decision maker since October and there have been whispers that perhaps a new general manager would want to bring in his own coach. The fact that the Raiders moved quickly to hire McKenzie may stoke that talk. Will Jackson be replaced? The odds are against it, but crazier things have happened.
  • McKenzie has Raider blood. He was a Raider linebacker from 1985-1988. Davis selected him in the 10th round of the draft nearly 27 years ago. Davis never knew he was choosing his replacement.
  • Former Davis associates Ron Wolf and Ken Herock have some influence with Mark Davis. Herock and Wolf recommended McKenzie to Davis and they were clearly listened to.
  • Are the Raiders going to become Green Bay West? It’s not the worst thing that could happen to the franchise. There has been talk that McKenzie could bring the Ron Wolf's son, Eliot, with him.
  • Does this mean Darren Perry and Winston Moss, two Green Bay assistants, could be in the mix? They were mentioned as head coaching candidates last year. Maybe one of them emerges as a defensive coordinator candidate or as a head coach if a change is made. Green Bay’s key free agents are tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Ryan Grant and quarterback Matt Flynn. None of those players fill an immediate need for the Raiders.
  • When will he be able to start the job? Under league rules, McKenzie can’t be hired until after the Packers’ season. That may not be until February. However, the Packers can let McKenzie move on. I bet they will. He has been a good soldier and it’s not like they need him for next week’s game plan.

I’ve known McKenzie for several years. He is a friendly, quiet and laid back guy. Don’t expect him to be a swash buckler. He is a football man who will put in his work. He will not a be a headlines maker and he won’t make moves just to make moves. He will bring stability to the franchise and will do what it takes to improve the team.
This week's edition of ESPN.com's offseason Power Rankings was one of my favorites, and not just because I wrote it. As opposed to ranking the best of this moment, our goal was to look ahead and project some of the people we might include in future Power Rankings.

If we're right, this week's list represents the core members of the next wave of NFL head-coaching candidates. We didn't include college coaches, and we made the executive decision to eliminate anyone who has already been a head coach, allowing us to focus on up-and-coming assistants throughout the league.

Given how much projection was involved in this exercise, I felt most comfortable with the people I know most about. (So did the other bloggers, and 24 assistants ended up appearing on at least one ballot.) To that end, I voted for four NFC North coaches in the order below:

3. Green Bay Packers safeties coach Darren Perry
6. Packers receivers coach Edgar Bennett
7. Chicago Bears special-teams coach Dave Toub
10. Packers assistant head coach/inside linebackers Winston Moss

Moss (No. 6) and Perry (No. 10) made the top 10. My thoughts below:
  • Perry has two important attributes going for him. First, he is a good coach and deserves credit not only for guiding the transition of Pro Bowl free safety Nick Collins into a new scheme but also patching together the strong safety spot last season between multiple starters. Second, and this is just as important to his future, he is a long-time disciple of defensive coordinator Dom Capers, having played and coached in his 3-4 scheme. Given the success of the Packers' defense last season, and the fact that both Super Bowl teams played that scheme last season, Perry has the schematic pedigree NFL teams will be looking for. Many people around the league believe it is a matter of when, not if, Perry makes the next step to defensive coordinator.
  • Bennett presided over the rise of tailback Ryan Grant from obscurity in 2007 and has drawn particular praise for drills designed to limit fumbles. Grant deserves some credit as well, but the fact remains he lost five fumbles in three years under Bennett as the Packers' primary tailback. Last season, no one among the trio of Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and James Starks lost a fumble on a running play. The Packers' decision to shift Bennett to receivers coach suggests he is being groomed for a bigger job -- either in Green Bay or elsewhere.
  • I didn't really expect anyone else to vote for Toub, and I can't say for sure that an NFL owner would seriously consider hiring a special-teams coach from outside the organization for his own head-coaching job. But Toub has quite simply fielded the most competent and explosive special-teams group in the NFL since joining the Bears in 2004. (One obscure stat among many: The Bears have more blocked kicks during Toub's tenure than any other NFL team.) Toub also has the global mindset necessary to be a head coach, and in 2009, Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid said: "On your staff, the coach that's best prepared to be a head coach is your special-teams coach. They have to deal with everybody on the roster, plus [the media]. That's a tough thing to do. Dave Toub would be a great head coach down the road." Like current Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Toub might need to move to an offensive or defensive role for a time period to balance his résumé.
  • Moss drew interest from both the St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders two years ago for their respective head-coaching jobs. He is a strong leader, someone that players enjoy working for and deserves credit for transitioning A.J. Hawk into an inside linebacker and Desmond Bishop into a full-time starter. Moss has experience in a 3-4 and a 4-3 scheme, and there was talk of the Raiders hiring him as their defensive coordinator this winter. My thought in ranking him No. 10 is that NFL teams would pursue Perry before Moss because of Perry's connection with Capers, but that's just an educated guess.
  • Remember, this was a ranking of up-and-coming assistants, not a list of the 10 best assistant coaches in the NFL. If it had been, my list would have looked dramatically different. Many of the NFC North's best assistants are former head coaches who might not get another chance at the top job. That list includes Capers, Chicago Bears assistants Rod Marinelli, Mike Martz and Mike Tice, and Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
  • And finally, we put together a little video that you might have missed in the original post. Extra credit for anyone who identifies the photograph in the background of my segment.
Power Rankings turn to an important, relatively unknown bunch this week: assistant coaches.

But we’re not ranking the top 10 assistant coaches, we’re ranking the top 10 up-and-coming assistant coaches. Who are guys who have not been head coaches before (interim stints didn’t disqualify anyone) who we expect will ultimately be patrolling the sideline in the primary headset?

It’s an interesting list that has a lot of debatable votes. For example, I didn’t vote for Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who wound up No. 1.

I explain why in Kevin Seifert’s piece unveiling the overall rankings (and here's the column relating to it all). I also make the case for Jacksonville offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who got my third-place vote and finished fifth overall.

Considering that I am on record selecting Koetter as my head coach if I assembled a staff from the AFC South pool of coaches, including the four head coaches, my vote should be no surprise. Indications were he was great in his interview with Denver, and only John Fox’s prior experience got him the job ahead of Koetter.

He was the No. 1 selection for agent Bob Lattinville, who represents a lot of coaches and put together a top 10 list for me.

Here’s my ballot, which I remind you counted just one-eighth of the overall result:
  1. Rob Ryan
  2. Winston Moss
  3. Dirk Koetter
  4. Greg Olson
  5. Bill O’Brien
  6. Darren Perry
  7. Brian Schottenheimer
  8. Rich Bisaccia
  9. Mike Zimmer
  10. Mike Waufle

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