Second-year defensive back M.D. Jennings may have began practice with the first-string defense at the first full-team practice open to the public during an Organized Team Activity (OTA) Tuesday in Green Bay, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be handed a job with the starters.
Head coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged during a press conference after practice that it’s the time of year for experimenting.
“We want to get a feel for all the young guys,” said McCarthy, “and you want to roll as many different combinations as you can, and things get a little disjointed there as far as the different personnel groups, especially going against our offense. We don’t line up in just one or two personnel groups.”
The Packers have taken a winding road this offseason to get to where they currently are at the safety position as the first week of OTAs dawned on them this week.
It began with the unfortunate release of three-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins shortly before the NFL Draft in April. Following a neck injury in Week 3 of the 2011 that necessitated cervical fusion surgery, the Packers decided they just didn’t want to take the risk of putting a young player’s quality of life in jeopardy.
In Collins, they lost a special player, a veteran influence, a ballhawk and a big part of the reason they were able to win the Super Bowl in 2010. It was no surprise the Green Bay defense, particularly the pass defense, struggled last season as a consequence.
Their safety valve at the position, pun intended, has been another veteran, Charlie Peprah. Filling in for an injured Morgan Burnett in 2010 and Collins in 2011, Peprah provided a steady though not spectacular influence.
With seven combined interceptions in 25 starts over the past two seasons, including five in 2011, Peprah has proven his value. But his lack of elite athleticism has observers wondering if the Packers wouldn’t be better off finding a better option, ast least as a starter, especially in light of the defense giving up the most passing yards in the history of the NFL last year.
Peprah didn’t practice on Monday, which has opened the door––at least temporarily––for Jennings. Peprah told DoorCountyNews.com in a video during last week’s Tailgate Tour that he has a sore knee.
Jenning took the first-string reps next to Burnett, a starter at safety last year, and a good bet to start in 2012 barring injury or an incredible let down.
As an undrafted rookie, Jennings impressively made the 53-man roster last season. And even though his playing time came primarily on special teams, simply saving a valuable roster spot for the untested young player showed that the Packers must like something about Jennings.
“It’s been really nice to watch him mature with his time,” said McCarthy. “I always watch those guys on the opponent squads, because obviously you’re competing during the week. He’s an instinctive football player. Now he’s doing a lot better job communicating, has very good range.”
Then in typical McCarthy style, he added, “I like all our young safeties.”
As if to drive that point home, the young safeties were cycled throughout Tuesday’s practice session including first-year player Anthony Levine who spent time on the Packers’ practice squad in each of the past two years as well.
If Tuesday’s practice session proved anything, however, it’s that fourth-round draft choice Jerron McMillian won’t simply be handed a starting job despite the uncertainty at the safety position.
But even though it’s early, the rookie thinks he’ll be given a fair chance to win a job.
“I think there’s always going to be opportunity,” said McMillian. “If you go in and compete just like everyone else, the chance will be given.”
At this point in the offseason, every safety is being given an opportunity, even Sean Richardson, another undrafted rookie. What they’re able to do with that opportunity will determine who will win playing time and roster spots when training camp rolls around.