With Burnett, the Possibilities Are Endless

The Packers have never been as versatile on defense as they will be going into the 2017 season.

A seasoned veteran now entering his eighth year, Morgan Burnett is the oldest player in the Packers' secondary—he has Davon House beat by a little under six months—and he's also one of the most important ones.

Practically a chess piece at 29 years of age, Burnett was utilized somewhat of a guinea pig in 2016, being placed all over the field in packages that required the Packers to become relatively more athletic in the middle of the field to mask the deficiencies of their inside linebackers.

Whether he was at his traditional safety spot, lined up in the box as an agile linebacker or assigned to the slot, Burnett was all over the field. He led the team in tackles, much like he has done in two out of the last three seasons. He's also either led or finished second on the team in tackles in five out of his last six.

While Burnett often played in the box in both nickel and dime packages, the Packers were able to deploy undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice on the back end later in the season. A role he's expected to continue seeing more of in his second season with the Packers.

In order to continue allowing Burnett to see reps in various spots on defense, the Packers needed to replace the snaps lost by allowing Micah Hyde to pursue his options in free agency. Hyde, now a Bill preparing for his first season in Buffalo, played a lot as the team's slot cornerback last season due to the injuries sustained there during a physical season.

It's why the Packers drafted Josh Jones with their second of two second round picks in April's draft. Only 22 years old, Jones takes his talents from NC State to Green Bay, Wisconsin a year early. He declared for the draft after his junior year and was still ranked as one of the top safeties in the draft.

Now, he's providing defensive coordinator Dom Capers and company even more of an outlet for changing up their defensive personnel groupings. In an ever-evolving era of both offense and defense, the Packers need to keep up and enforcing more speed and human Swiss Army knife-like players into the mix would help them do so with ease.

Burnett during Packers training camp. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports)

For the team's first training camp practice on Thursday, their defense opened up with what looked like would be the base package going into the regular season. At least, that's the presumption.

Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels both anchored the defensive line whereas Clay Matthews and Nick Perry occupied the edges. Joe Thomas, the team's dime linebacker was alongside Burnett to round out the defensive front. Davon House and LaDarius Gunter secured the perimeter with Damarious Randall in his "star" slot position and Brice with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix resumed roles at safety. 

This first base look to kick off camp was without Jones, who is expected to play a major role in the Packers' shape-shifting defense. 

With a strong season at age 29, Burnett will definitely make his case to potentially be issued a third contract—a rarity in the Ted Thompson era. After all, Burnett is a majority, if not all of the reason why the Packers are able to get so creative with their defensive looks.

A lot of this is also going to bank on the development of Brice, who can make a jump entering his second season. His coverage ability is all that is lacking in the tenacious skill set of a hard-hitting safety. By the time safeties coach Darren Perry is done with him, the Packers may just have that much more confident in their safety group, giving them much more freedom to deploy Burnett in the box on more than scarce occasions.

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Zachary Jacobson is a staff writer/reporter for Cheesehead TV. He's the voice of The Leap on iTunes and can be heard on The Scoop KLGR 1490 AM every Saturday morning. He's also a contributor on the Pack-A-Day Podcast. He can be found on Twitter via @ZachAJacobson or contacted through email at [email protected].

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Comments (11)

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Handsback's picture

July 28, 2017 at 07:48 am

The Packers and really all the NFL teams have to be able to cover the middle of the field. That includes RBs like White from NE to those bigger TEs going across the middle or down the seam. Think of NE just for a second...they don't have any Jordy Nelsons, they have Gronk and the smurfs. So you pile on more DBs and they run their big man back (Blunt last year) to keep moving the sticks. So the NFL is doing what colleges have been for quite some time, put one of your bigger DBs into the box as a cover guy and potential run stopper. It seems to me that Nebraska did this as well as any team. The Falcons deployed a back 7 grouping during the last SB that was pretty effective for most of the game. They even managed to put a lot of pressure on Brady.

So in this copycat NFL we will see that the most effective groupings will be those that can stop teams with the smurfs WRs, two TEs, four wide outs, and two RB sets that want to pound the ball between the tackles. To do it you had better keep a very versatile defense and a coordinator with imagination. As many Packer fans will probably disagree, Capers is one of those guys that can pull this off as long as he has the right players. This year he has those players.

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chugwater's picture

July 28, 2017 at 08:26 am

I agree and am anxious to see how this defense evolves throughout the year.

The one thing that has me curious is how well we and similarly structured defenses will play against the Cowboys this year. The copycat schemes and personnel groups are getting faster, but also lighter. Dallas has the power running game that's set up to take advantage of these hybrid defenses that only feature, say, two down linemen.

It will be interesting.

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Finwiz's picture

July 28, 2017 at 08:57 am

Burnett is as good as gone after this year. He's an average, to slightly above average player, with no big-play ability. I'll also never forget him laying down in the middle of an open field in the playoff game against Seattle. That has to go down as one of the DUMBEST, if not THE dumbest play in the history of the Packers. You take the initiative, you're a football player - you try to score, and you hold the ball with two hands when contact is coming. They won't miss Burnett.

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Somedumbname's picture

July 28, 2017 at 02:49 pm

we do have the D line depth to match up with a power running team such as Dallas.

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chugwater's picture

July 29, 2017 at 07:06 am

That's a good point. Lowry and Clark turned out to be decent draft picks. I wonder if DC will ever put more than two in the game at one time other than short yardage situations.

Dallas has passing weapons too. Dez, Whitten, and Beasley are credible pass options.

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dobber's picture

July 28, 2017 at 08:29 am

"With a strong season at age 29, Burnett will definitely make his case to potentially be issued a third contract—a rarity in the Ted Thompson era."

Based on how TT has operated the last couple years, I just don't see Burnett back next season. It looks like there are viable replacements waiting in the wings. He's playing for a contract somewhere else...and I hope he earns a fat one ( = compensatory picks).

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RCPackerFan's picture

July 28, 2017 at 08:43 am

With Brice emerging and the versatility of Jones, I agree that I don't see Burnett coming back.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

July 28, 2017 at 02:20 pm

Because I anticipate losing Burnett and getting a comp pick in return (and saving $16M to $20M in cap space), I'd like to see Marwin Evans force himself onto the 53. In 2018, Brice replaces Burnett, Jones takes over the hybrid ILB thang, and Evans becomes the depth player that Brice was in 2016. Mind, Evans has to show something to earn the spot.

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Arthur Jackson's picture

July 28, 2017 at 03:56 pm

Burnett sucks. Fully two other safeties have more sacks and tackles since he came in the league in 2010.

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croatpackfan's picture

July 28, 2017 at 04:25 pm

"After all, Burnett is a majority, if not all of the reason why the Packers are able to get so creative with their defensive looks."

I think that other fellow players also have good case to claim they are reason(s) too....

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LayingTheLawe's picture

July 28, 2017 at 07:07 pm

The report I listened to from early practices said that it was Josh Jones in there playing a lot of inside linebacker on passing downs. There seems to be a lot of interest by the defensive staff of playing Burnett and Jones closer to the line of scrimmage as a person who can still support the run but also cover inside routes and keep Clinton-Dix and Brice as deep safeties at the same time. Inside linebacker may be a position on the way out in the pass heavy NFL and playing three safeties as part of a dime defense is the way to go if one of those safeties is one with the ability to still bring some thump at the line of scrimmage. The Packers lost Micah Hyde and whatever you call the position he played and maybe that can be Jones, Burnett or some combination thereof.

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