Replacing Nick Collins will be no small task if you’re to believe Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy.
The veteran Packers safety was lost for the season after injuring his neck in Sunday’s win over the Carolina Panthers and will be placed on injured reserve.
“Nick’s a heck of a football player,” said McCarthy in his Monday press conference. “He’s a true team guy. To see number 36 flying around out there since the whole time I’ve been here in Green Bay, he does so many little things. You look at the first half of his career, he’s on pace to potentially have a Hall of Fame career here.”
Collins is also a three-time Pro Bowler, and the task of replacing his production will fall on the shoulders of Charlie Peprah, who McCarthy has already anointed as the new starter.
Peprah has plenty of experience as an injury replacement after substituting for Morgan Burnett following his injury-shortened season a year ago.
On Monday, Peprah was left just trying to digest the news that his fellow position mate will be lost for the remainder of 2011 with such a serious and perhaps even career-threatening injury, though that remains to be seen.
“It’s really an unfortunate situation,” Peprah told the media on Monday. “You never want to assume this role with that type of injury. I just first and foremost hope that he’s going to be okay.”
Peprah was a God-send for the Packers a year ago when Burnett went down. As a free agent signed before the start of 2010, Peprah started 11 regular season games and two more in the playoffs as he brought stability to a position ravaged by injury.
Despite being a five-year veteran, 2010 was the first time Peprah received extensive playing time on defense. It didn’t take much for him to set career highs in tackles (64), interceptions (two) and passes defensed (seven).
He didn’t provide a ton of eye-popping, game-changing plays, but Peprah provided a steadying influence to the secondary, was a solid tackler in the box, and was a key contributor to a Super Bowl winning team.
For all that he was able to accomplish last season, Peprah knows it’s not going to be easy to take the place of Collins as a member of one of the deepest secondaries in the NFL.
“It’s an unfortunate deal,” said Peprah, “but we just have to pick up right where he left off. I have big shoes to fill. Hopefully my teammates have confidence in me, and the coaches do too.”
It’s doubtful Peprah will be able to put up the same numbers as Collins, who’s had 21 career interceptions returned for 507 yards and four touchdowns, but he won’t be expected to, either.
As long as Peprah does the same thing he did a season ago, offer a consistent performance in the face of adversity, he’ll likely be a suitable stand-in for Collins.
“Charlie is a very smart player,” said Burnett. “He’s a veteran player and you don’t have any worries about Charlie. I’ll be asking him questions the way I did Nick.”
While Burnett is already a starting member of the defensive backfield, he’ll be looked at to provide some of the slack left by Collins as well.
Given Peprah’s physical limitations, namely speed and range, Burnett––perhaps––could provide the big-play ability that Collins possessed.
As a third-round draft choice out of Georgia Tech last year, many thought the Packers would be getting the ballhawk they saw in college.
Burnett’s development was slowed by the knee injury that ended his season last year, but since that time, he’s shown flashes of what could be exciting things to come.
On Sunday, after getting beat in coverage a couple times by Panthers receivers, Burnett helped make up for it by picking off an overthrown Cam Newton pass and forcing a fumble on wideout Steve Smith.
“It’s going to be a challenge, because with Nick’s leadership and his big-play ability, those are big shoes to fill,” said Burnett. “We just got to go in there and push and work hard and do it for Nick.”
The Packers are used to overcoming injury. They had 15 players go on injured reserve on their way to winning the league championship in February.
It took a small army of players to make up for the numerous losses, and the rest of the safeties very likely learned a lesson along the way.
It might be tough to replace Collins with just one player, but Peprah and Burnett––as a committee––will be charged with such a task.