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Thompson Provides Many Answers, but Safety Remains a Question Mark

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Thompson Provides Many Answers, but Safety Remains a Question Mark

The defense Packers GM Ted Thompson assembled hit its breaking point last season.

A unit that slammed the door shut on several wins during Green Bay's Super Bowl run just a year prior fell apart, piece-by-piece. The collapse was swift and strikingly easy to dissect.

The departure of Cullen Jenkins and subsequent no-show by Mike Neal robbed the defensive line of of its penetrating pass-rusher. Dom Capers tried a revolving door of outside linebackers opposite Clay Matthews, but there wasn't a starting-quality player at the position on the 2011 roster. Tramon Williams' Week 1 shoulder injury lingered all season, stripping the emerging cornerback of his effectiveness in press-man coverages. The linebackers couldn't cover anyone in the passing game. Sam Shields finally looked like an undrafted former receiver playing cornerback. The Packers' career of All-Pro safety Nick Collins effectively ended in Charlotte, NC during a Week 2 win, suddenly turning a positional strength into a major weakness. And the tackling of the entire unit was as poor as it's been during the Mike McCarthy era.

If untrained football eyes could rattle off the issues, you better believe Thompson knew them too. In fact, he's proven it over the last couple of months. One by one, the football architect has tackled the problems that plagued his defensive roster last season.

In the otherwise forgotten-about free agency, Thompson signed defensive linemen Tony Hargrove and Daniel Muir. He then spent draft picks on Michigan State's Jerel Worthy and Iowa's Mike Daniels to improve the talent level up front ten-fold. The hope is that at least one of the four will emerge as a player that can finally replace Jenkins on one side of B.J. Raji.

To fix the need for a player opposite Matthews, Thompson ended his three-year run of plugging in band-aid options by taking USC's Nick Perry in the first round. If Perry even approaches his football ceiling, the days of seeing the Frank Zombo's and Erik Walden's of the world playing meaningful snaps at the 3-4 defense's most important position should be over.

Thompson also moved up to snag Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward, a polished cornerback who should immediately push Sam Shields as the team's nickelback. At the very least, Hayward provides insurance should one of the other cornerbacks suffer an injury or continue to regress. Thompson even picked an inside linebacker with the ability to cover the league's growing tight end and running back specialists in NC State's Terrell Manning.

But if there's one need that Thompson may have put on the backburner, it's undoubtedly safety. I struggle to find the confidence in predicting that the backend of Green Bay's defense will have any kind of improvement next season.

Everything considered, what left the position far outweighs what was brought in.

The Packers brass never felt comfortable with Collins' return after spinal fusion surgery, and the team eventually made the decision to cut the three-time Pro Bowler loose. Few have placed any blame on Thompson and/or Mike McCarthy for making the decision they made in dealing with the life and well-being of a "family" member.

To fill the hole left by Collins' release, Thompson picked Maine safety Jerron McMillian with his second compensatory pick in the fourth round. The 2012 draft was admittedly shallow in the safety pool, making it difficult to find an impact player at the position.

While McMillian is certainly raw, some have compared his selection to Thompson's taking of Collins back in 2005. Stacking the players side-by-side isn't difficult: Both were considered small school prospects with upside and raw athletic tools, and McMillian might get the same early opportunity that Collins received back in 2005.

But let's keep it all in perspective, too. Collins was a second round pick, the 51st overall selection of the '05 draft. McMillian was the 133rd overall selection last Saturday.

Maybe down the road, McMillian becomes the next Collins. Or maybe he becomes David Burton or Chip Vaughn or Darrell Stuckey, other safeties picked in the fourth round since 2009. The three have a combined for 32 tackles and one interception in the NFL to date, and Burton is currently unemployed. There's no sure things in the NFL draft, and the bust rate only multiples when you start advancing the rounds.

McMillian wasn't likely to be a year one answer. It took Collins two or three years for the light to come on, and I wouldn't expect anything less from McMillian. There will be an adjustment period to maneuver through.

Given then the low probability of M.D Jennings, 2011 practice squader Anthony Levine or undrafted free agent Sean Richardson (Vanderbilt) taking the position by storm, the Packers are probably looking at another year of a familiar combination at safety: Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah.

The two struggled in shoring up the many leaks that sprung on the defensive side of the ball last season. In fact, no safety combination gave up more receptions or touchdowns then Peprah and Burnett in 2011.

Burnett has upside, and there's no forgetting that he's actually approaching 2012 as his true sophomore season. A torn ACL stole all but four games of his rookie season. But expecting him to completely mask the loss of Collins as the defensive centerfielder is probably optimistic thinking. He struggled to pull it off last season as the Packers gave up more passing yards than any team in the history of the league.

Playing alongside Peprah didn't help.

The veteran safety has obvious athletic limitations. And while the Packers got by in 2010 with Peprah playing a high number of snaps, offensive coordinators often found ways to expose him last season. You can bet your last dollar that playcallers will find new ways to target 26 if he's a starter in 2012, too.

Packers safeties coach Darren Perry knows his group has a long ways to go leading into 2012.

“We’ve got big challenges ahead of us,” Perry said. “And our biggest challenge is to be consistent and eliminate big plays — too many big plays, way too many and coach Dom has been on it, and we’ve all looked at it.”

Any improvements in the pass-rush should help the safeties, as quarterbacks often ate sandwiches and made phone calls before having to get rid of the football last season. And maybe a player like McMillian, Levine or Richardson can emerge as a viable replacement for Peprah. Charles Woodson is always rumored to be making the position switch, too.

But overall, I see safety as the one weakness in the defense Thompson didn't adequately address. Time will tell whether or not that question mark leading into next season will keep the Packers' defense from returning to 2010 levels.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (29) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Tommyboy's picture

Good read, Zach. I've read a number of your articles now and am glad you're on the CheeseheadTV team. I think safety is the obvious biggest question-mark right now. At least with every other position, there are one or two solid potential answers.

Every year, I find myself more and more excited to watch preseason ball to see the likes of our 4th rounders and UFA's to see who might stand out. This year, I may be more excited to see McMillan and Richardson (both physical beasts) than our #1 pick. I'm also STOKED about Hayward. Perhaps Woodson sees a little more time at safety as well...all good stuff.

QOTSA1's picture

The loss of Collins is huge, but no team is perfect at every position, and hopefully Burnett improves with a full off season under his belt.

If Worthy and Perry are able to add anything to the Packers pass rush, it will make the secondary much much better. As the article points out, opposing quarterbacks had all day to throw the ball.

My hope is they give McMillian a shot at the starting job. The Packers know what they have in Peprah, he's fine as a back up, but should not be a starter. The more McMilian plays with Williams, Burnett, and Woodson the better he will be.

Stroh's picture

I disagree w/ one thing in particular. Hayward isn't going to take the position of Shields. He might start ahead of Shields, should the Packers move Woodson to safety, which I think it by far the best option. But Shields is very good as an outside CB in nickel and dime. He struggled last year, due to the lockout and the Packers putting additional responsibility on him before he was ready. But Hayward is perfectly suited to play the slot in 3 and 4 WR sets. In the slot you need quickness more than speed, tackling and instincts. On the outside you need speed, more than quickness. You have to look at the roles and abilities of the players, not just the fact that they both play CB! The fact that they drafted Hayward instead of someone like Fleming indicates they wanted a slot CB, more than an outside CB. WHich makes it far more likely they move Woodson to Safety, and use Hayward in the slot. Heyward is also more likely to start over Shields to his size and tackling ability.

Need to go a little deeper than just looking at a position and saying Hayward replaces Shields!

Bohj's picture

To be fair I think he said "push" shields for the position. I read that as competition, not replacement.

Bohj's picture

The d will be fun to watch. Hard to speculate here. The facts are, we had the most int's in the league last year with no pressure. Now we're adding a bit of that from nothing more than competition at qb destroyer positions. We were appalled at the tackling and the miscommunications in the secondary. The coaching staff will have that figured out with a real offseason. Nothing will be worked on more.

Our safety stable is not amazing, but all are capable of making plays. Burnett and peprah both had some sweet int's last yr. We have ballhawks everywhere. Even house has potential. There is competition that didn't exist before. We have capers schemes locked into year 4 now. I want to argue that our safeties were the worst tandem in the league because of qb pocket time. Plus you could say our corners were the worst in the league with same numbers youre using for our safety tandem. Tramon

Bohj's picture

And Woodson? The worst? Hardly. We still have youth. Shields house and Burnett are still young. They will still grow. Year three for secondary is always a big jump. Our staff expects it. You don't produce by this time, you get replaced by youth. That lights the fire. Bye bye lee and underwood. Hello hayward and house and the million dollar man. Draft and develop, cut the weak links, contracts to your producers. We will be way better.

toolkien's picture

I've been one to point out the takeaway rate as well in proving the Packers' D was mediocre and not "terrible" as so many want to do based solely on yards. But the Packers' slate of teams next year aren't the most high flying of offenses and therefore don't put the ball up like many of the teams they played last year.

packernik's picture

Zach, yes strong safety is our biggest question mark right now, but Dom Capers already knows the answer is not Peprah. If he starts in September, I will eat my hat. Yes, Jennings, Levine, McMillian, and Richardson are all basically rookies, and they will not hit their ceilings for a couple of years, but by August at least one of them will be higher (even short of their ceilings) than Peprah, who is already at his ceiling. Nicest thing Dom could say about him is that he's played a lot of snaps!

BubbaOne's picture

When TT re-signed Peprah on April 26, 2010...yawn, and then he fills in admirably when Burnett goes down. When TT traded for Ryan Grant on Sept 1, 2007...half-yawn, and then he rushes for 929 yds the last 10 games of the season.

So far we have the players mentioned but I trust TT to find a S to fill the void if these don't step up.

FITZCORE1252's EVO's picture

Good stuff Zach. I've said it before, but I think I'll say it again. I was really bummed when Andy Niffler said he was jumping ship, well, because of your pieces, I have to think hard to even remember Andy's name... It is Andy, right? Good work Zach, and I agree with your take on the safety position.

GBP 4 LIFE

Nerd's Laptop's picture

Collins played well right away. His dad was dying of cancer in his second year, so by comparison, he didn't reach his elite pro bowl status until year three. That is true. Hopefully that won't happen with the new guy.

As for Nick's surgery, I don't know why they allowed him to have the surgery if they weren't going to let him play anyway. He didn't need it if he was gonna retire. I'm just kind of repulsed by the whole situation I guess.

PackersRS's picture

Collins was drafted in 05. His father passed away in 09. 4 years.

He did flash his early years, but he wasn't a pro bowler.

Woodson4president's picture

As many trade ups and crazy moves TT has made this offseason, i think hes actually listening to our questions and making sure he keeps us fans happy. Having said that i think he is going to make sure we have a good player at safety. I actually think Charles will be back there. One things for sure peprah will not start.

toolkien's picture

Which of course is TT's main priority, historically speaking.

I don't think TT gives a rat's patooty what anybody else thinks, nor should he.

I guess when 40% of the fan base has you hoisted half way on to the hot seat even though you've had the best team in the league over the last three years, you CAN'T care what they think.

packsmack25's picture

Here's how I think the order of Safety depth should go right now:

Burnett
McMillian
Jennings
Levine
Woodson
Richardson
Peprah

Unless those other 5 in front of him prove completely incapable, Peprah shouldn't ever get the chance to lose games for us.

packsmack25's picture

Oh, and no one man is going to replace this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElGIlTMnSVQ

Just not gonna happen.

Jake's picture

Seriously, this makes me upset. Such a ridiculous talent and athlete. Top 3 safety in the league in my opinion. Don't think there was another one in the league with his kind of closing speed. All gone now :(

Please Burnett step up.

Idiot Fan's picture

Oh man, watching that video made me very sad. Dude was awesome. Glad we had him while we had him though!

FITZCORE1252's EVO's picture

I hope McMillian comes in and takes the two spot. And that's great where you have Charlie, it's not that i don't like the guy or that I think he intentionally bags it, it's more that he's just not talented enough to start in the league. He just isn't. But if they continue to trot him out there, he will take Bush's spot of most hated Packer. And soon.

dawg's picture

Sad to see Collins go, good guy.
Defensive coaches are going to have to coach there asses off this mini camp and pre-season.

Al's picture

Personally I am fine with what Ted did to address the Safety position. Our main priorities in the draft were OLB and DL so what did he do, he made moves he had to that got some he liked. He didnt just get one DL but smartly he grabbed two. He also shored up that spot in FA. We also needed another CB since Woodson is getting up there in age and he took perhaps the best pick of the draft for us and got one. To boot he grabbed a very highly rated tackle prospect and a good QB. He didn't ignore the safety spot though, he grabbed one in the 4th which is about as early as we could really get one. He obviously likes the kid which is why he got him. I am confident he will be starting in under 2 years, same as Burnett.

MarkinMadison's picture

Zach, the analysis is dead on given the date on the calendar. The problem is that the Packer's first game is September, and we have not even seen a single practice yet. By mid-August we could be talking about Perry as a potential bust, and McMillian as the steal of the draft. Too soon to tell anything about anyone.

All of that aside, I don't know that there really were any good options at safety this off season. Heck, a couple of years ago Collins had gone to his first Pro Bowl and a lot of folks were still calling for his replacement. No one has a bad word about the guy now. Go figure.

Woodson4president's picture

I love the 36 mafia as me and my buddies call him. I went to see em play vs the eagles two years ago first game of our superbowl season and i had seats by the tunnel. When he came out with Jordy and Sam they just circled up right beside me and i started flippin out n yellin his name and he just looked up at me and gave me the nod n smile and i will never forget it! Great player, but great guy as well! Good luck 36..

marcopo's picture

Any realistic analysis is difficult based on last years performance. The lack of rush effected every position. It made Woodson try too hard to compensate. The DB's couldn't cover a QB who had all day. The DL couldn't control the gaps for the ILBers. Capers had to nickle too often because he knew he had no linemen. There's House, Hayward and McMillen. Who will step up. In any event Peprah's lack of athletism will consign him to backup. There is no reason to think, under circumstances, that Williams and Shields won't be back, given pressure. You gotta be optimistic with this bunch.

lars's picture

This story seems like a nitpick on the defense-dominated draft.

The defense had weakness throughout and S was the least important priority. If you get the pass rush right and back to 2010 form, then the S position will automatically improve.

The DLine had to be addressed, as did both outside and ILB and CB with Hayward. Then, the Packers took McMillan, not a mid-round OT.

It was a very weak safety class---Barron, Smith...maybe a few overachievers like Brandon Taylor and that's about it. The #3 ranked strong safety, George Iloka, wasn't drafted until the 5th round.

toolkien's picture

Which 2010 form, the first half of the season when they were getting no rush whatsoever in weeks 3-9, or the last half when they sent safety blitzes every other play because they could afford to with Shields and Williams playing so well?

jim's picture

i believe t.t. may be a misunderstood individual. as i understand it, he traded down in the past to acquire more picks so that he could re-freshen his aging roster, replacing aging and higher paid players with younger and more aggressive talent. as he has achieved his goal of increasing the talent across the board on the team, it seems a waste to retain 12 picks, so he traded up and used many to acquire what the packers needed. it sounds like a great plan to me. the problem is that things dont work out to plan. just a few years ago, i thought the packer defensive line was awesome, with tremendous potential to do damage, yet with the loss of jenkins, jolly, and kampman, a significant drop in performance occurred, reminding us that, at any given time, we are just an injury or two away...or some other calamity... from taking a big hit in performance. i believe that thompson's plan of first uplifting talent across the board made their recent 15-1 season a success...a season that may have been much worse had the pack not built itself the way it was built. with the new additions, combined with some loaded talent on the team and on the practice squad, the pack is going to be a fun experience to follow this year.

toolkien's picture

He's misunderstood because people are stupid.

L.E. Lumley's picture

I think TT does a great job. He is far better at getting good draft picks than any other GM. I'm a WI. guy living in the peoples republic or oregon. You would be stunned at the number of Packer Fans living here. Go Pack!!

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