This is the seventh in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to training camp. The series continues with the defensive backs.
GREEN BAY – Year after year, the seats keep filling up in Darren Perry’s safeties room.
As the demand grows for versatile defenders who can run with athletic tight ends and stand up to bulldozing running backs, the need for dynamic safeties continues to increase.
The Packers have managed to stay ahead of that curve with do-everything veteran Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix leading a strong contingent of prospects.
Burnett had arguably the best of his seven NFL seasons in 2016. The eighth-year safety not only played hybrid linebacker in the Packers’ nitro nickel package, but he also stepped up as a slot (and boundary) cornerback at times due to injury.
Burnett finished with a team-high 93 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions in 15 starts. Head Coach Mike McCarthy believes Burnett’s role only will continue to expand in 2017.
With Burnett playing more near the line of scrimmage, former first-round pick Clinton-Dix took his game – and leadership skills – to another level in centerfield.
Clinton-Dix, who played all 1,029 defensive snaps, earned his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections after recording 80 tackles, a team-high five interceptions and a half sack. Once the season was over, the 24-year-old returned to Alabama to continue working toward his degree in criminal justice.
The Packers offset the loss of Micah Hyde in free agency with the addition of second-round pick Josh Jones, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound safety out of North Carolina State who many scouts believed could handle playing multiple positions in the NFL.
Known for his physicality, Jones led the Wolfpack with 62 tackles, three interceptions and one sack in 13 starts last season.
The Packers also return a pair of undrafted free agents, Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans, who saw extensive playing time on special teams in all 16 regular-season contests last year.
Brice, who’s known to pack a punch on the field, also played more than 200 defensive snaps at safety when Burnett lined up near the line of scrimmage in the dime sub-package.
Meanwhile, the Packers are looking to turn the page at cornerback after a trying 2016 season in which Sam Shields (concussion), Damarious Randall (groin), Quinten Rollins (groin) and Demetri Goodson (knee) missed time due to injury.
General Manager Ted Thompson fortified the position this offseason in re-signing former fourth-round pick Davon House after a two-year stint in Jacksonville and using the first of the Packers’ two second-round picks on Washington cornerback Kevin King.
King missed most of the offseason program due to league rules prohibiting rookies reporting until their school has dismissed for the summer. However, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound cornerback was able to keep up with the installations during FaceTime sessions with position coach Joe Whitt Jr.
House showed he’s willing to go to great lengths to be a veteran leader, whether it’s helping the rookie cornerbacks study the playbook at the team hotel or hitching an overnight ride to Green Bay from Minneapolis to be on time for OTAs.
Individually, House wants to prove he’s still the same cornerback who set a franchise record with 23 pass deflections and snagged a career-high four interceptions with Jacksonville in 2015.
The Packers also return their trio of third-year corners in Randall, Rollins and LaDarius Gunter, a former undrafted free agent who was praised by the coaching staff for how he responded to starting all but the season opener following Shields’ injury.
Randall and Rollins, who both underwent surgery for their injuries, were full participants in the Packers’ offseason program after training together in California this offseason.
Randall was a fixture as the “star” slot cornerback in the nickel and dime defense this offseason, the same playmaking post Charles Woodson and Casey Hayward previously played.
The former first-round pick had four interceptions (including playoffs) just like his rookie season, but the groin issue that cost him six games hampered him even after his return. This offseason, he worked tirelessly to make sure he was “200 percent” going into 2017.
Two other undrafted rookie cornerbacks known for their speed and athleticism – Josh Hawkins and converted receiver Herb Waters – finished last year behind Gunter, Randall and Rollins on the active roster.
They’ll look to hold off four new college free agents – Lenzy Pipkins, Raysean Pringle, Daquan Holmes and Donatello Brown – in their quest to stick on the 53-man roster this year.
COUNTDOWN TO CAMP ROSTER SERIES
QBs: All four have goals in mind
RBs: Competition with five rookies behind Ty Montgomery
WRs: After top three, competition will be fierce
OL: Mixture of veterans and youth
DL: Mike Daniels leads defensive line
LBs: Nick Perry ready for encore