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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