GREEN BAY — Pull up Morgan Burnett’s profile page on the NFL website and it lists the seventh-year veteran as the starting strong safety for the Green Bay Packers.
However, ask those who know Burnett best and they’ll tell you the 27-year-old native of College Park, Ga., means much more than one position can quantify.
Burnett isn’t just a safety – he’s a football player. He’s more than a teammate – he’s an older brother.
When something goes awry on defense, Burnett answers every question with a hint of irritation. When the defense is hitting on all cylinders, you’ll find Burnett quietly packing his bag, while others satisfy the media horde.
This has been Burnett’s routine since the Packers drafted him in the third round out of Georgia Tech in 2010. He comes to work, does his job and asks for nothing in return.
“Morgan, he’s one of the most intelligent guys on the football field,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “A lot of guys look to him for help. If we’re on the field and you ask him a question, he doesn’t panic. He’ll give you the right answer and put you in the right position.”
Burnett says it took three or four years for him to feel truly at home in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense, but cornerback and close friend Sam Shields remembers otherwise.
Before Shields was a Pro Bowl cornerback, he was wide-eyed undrafted rookie on the verge of giving up on his conversion from receiver to the secondary.
Shields, downtrodden and struggling to learn the playbook, often leaned on Burnett for advice and support. What was this defense? What does this call mean? What do I need to do here?
The two knew each other from their days playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference when Shields was a receiver at Miami (Fla.) and Burnett was a safety for the Yellow Jackets. The two quickly bonded after reuniting at the hotel the Packers’ rookies were staying at.
Burnett, already on his way to being the Packers’ starting safety, didn’t have to help Shields. It wasn’t his job to coach the rookie, but he remained patient and reassuring regardless of how many questions Shields asked.
“Morgan is a smart guy. He knew it right off the bat,” said Shields recently. “There were certain things he had to get together, but he knew everything. When I needed help, he was right there.”
The Packers have given Burnett more responsibility every season he’s been in Green Bay. He’s become a mentor to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Hyde, Chris Banjo and other young defenders.
On the field, Burnett always has been a reliable in-the-box defender, which was the impetus for Capers to begin drawing up more ways to utilize him near the line of scrimmage.
The recent popularity of hybrid defensive backs could be seen in Sunday’s 27-23 win over Jacksonville when the Packers lined up Burnett next to inside linebacker Blake Martinez on a few plays against the Jaguars.
The versatility of the position was the prevailing reason Green Bay kept six safeties on its 53-man roster this year, and it needed almost all of them in Week 1.
When Shields (concussion) and LaDarius Gunter (cramping) dropped out due to injury in the fourth quarter, Burnett and Hyde were forced to drop down to cover the slots in the dime defense on the Jaguars’ final offensive series.
Neither defensive back batted at an eye at the request. Two of the most knowledgeable members of the defense, Burnett and Hyde played pivotal snaps leading up to the Packers holding Jacksonville on fourth-and-1 with 14 seconds remaining.
Burnett finished the game with a team-high nine tackles, with a fourth-quarter sack of Jaguars QB Blake Bortles that resulted in an 8-yard loss.
“He probably understands it as well as anybody we got back there,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “His versatility, along with Micah, those guys didn’t panic. They didn’t blink.
“When we had to put them in there at different spots, those guys (were like), ‘Hey, I got it. Don’t worry about it. Played it before, no panic. We’ll go out there and play the best we can.’ Those guys handled themselves well.”
The Packers’ secondary has been in transition over the past three seasons following the departures of Nick Collins, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, Jarrett Bush and Davon House.
Only outside linebacker Clay Matthews has more experience than Burnett operating in Green Bay’s defense. Still only 27, Burnett already has 84 career starts to his name.
Burnett isn’t the loudest talker in the room, but he knows how to communicate with his teammates. Even when the pressure is at its peak, he doesn’t abandon his calm demeanor.
“He’s very valuable because I think all the guys on the defense have confidence (in him),” Capers said. “There can’t be hesitation. Those guys up front have less time to adjust than the guys off the back end. That’s why you have to communicate, recognize things, anticipate them, make your calls and help get everybody into the right scheme.”
Burnett embraces his role as the elder brother of the secondary and acknowledges that true leadership comes from a combination of humility and experience.
During safety meetings, Perry frequently quizzes each player regardless of experience level about not only his assignments, but also those of the linebackers and defensive linemen.
Years of practice and repetition have put Burnett in a place where he feels comfortable filling multiple roles in the Packers’ defense. This year, the coaches are putting that to the test.
“Once you know what you’re doing, you understand what you’re doing and the reason behind it,” Burnett said. “It allows you to play fast to where you’re not doing as much thinking or trying to be perfect. You’re just reacting and playing, and that’s the result of playing fast.”
When the Packers informed Hyde he’d be learning the safety position after his rookie season, he immediately began peppering Burnett with questions during the offseason program.
Burnett doesn’t mind. As Shields and Hyde became veterans in the secondary, he’d still make himself available to every rookie who walked in the door.
It’s not about individual accolades for Burnett. Everything he does is done in the interest of the one thing that drives him.
“It’s fun to win,” Burnett said. “Whatever you need me to do to help us win, I’m going to do it and give it my all 100 percent to the best of my ability.”