INDIANAPOLIS — 2016 was only the beginning of the Packers’ plans for safety Morgan Burnett.
The Packers diversified the veteran’s role in the defense this past season with Burnett moving from his usual post at safety to occasionally serve as a hybrid linebacker and slot cornerback in passing situations.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers devised the adjustment during training camp to help defend against athletic tight ends in the middle of the field.
Burnett thrived in the new role. Known for his run-stopping ability and overall knowledge of the defense, the 6-foot-1, 209-pound safety took his game to a new level in finishing with a team-high 93 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.
As the coaching staff begins its preparations for 2017, McCarthy plans to keep finding ways to capitalize on Burnett’s versatility going forward.
“He was extremely productive down in the box,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to move forward with him. We’ll talk to him when he gets back, but we definitely want to give him more opportunities down there.”
Hybrid linebackers have been all the craze lately in the NFL with teams looking to combat explosive offensive schemes designed to spread out defenses and exploit mismatches.
The Packers didn’t intend to play Burnett in the box as often as they did, but injuries at inside linebacker and cornerback forced the second-longest tenured member of the defense, now entering his eighth season, to frequently play out of position.
Regardless, Burnett made the move from the back end to the box look seamless despite playing in different spots throughout the course of a single series.
McCarthy speaks of the Packers’ deployment of Burnett in the same breath as Clay Matthews, who played multiple roles in the defense throughout the 2014 and 2015 campaigns.
“He’s a multi-dimensional player,” said McCarthy of Burnett. “You look at the playmakers on your defense, Clay, I look at Morgan that way, too. Outside of health, he’s always been a good player for us. He’s had a couple seasons where he’s missed games, but that guy, he’s a helluva football player.”
The Packers were able to move Burnett around as often as they did because of their overall depth at safety, a position once viewed as a weak spot only three years ago.
To turn things around, Green Bay used a first-round pick on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in 2014 and moved Micah Hyde to safety. Both players have since developed into key contributors.
The Packers also made the bold move of keeping six safeties after final cuts with two undrafted free agents, Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans, making the initial 53-man roster.
With Hyde playing most of the season in the slot, Brice usually replaced Burnett in the dime sub-package when the veteran safety slid down to the other slot position.
There was even one instance in the regular-season finale against Detroit where Brice played in the slot after Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall both exited with injuries.
“I thought our safety position was extremely productive,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got some unique guys. Micah, Morgan. Ha can be that kind of guy, too. Those guys that can play two or three of those inside positions, if you get those corners to get locked down outside, that’ll be a huge asset for us to improve on defense.”
Burnett’s move toward the line of scrimmage placed more on the plate of Clinton-Dix, who responded with the most productive year for a Packers safety since Nick Collins’ third and final Pro Bowl appearance in 2010.
Clinton-Dix, who played every snap in 2016, tied his former Alabama teammate, Landon Collins, for most interceptions (five) among NFL safeties en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance and a second-team All-Pro nod.
“I think there’s room for improvement, but I think he’s had an excellent season,” McCarthy said. “You look at the way he played last year, and the things he did much better this year, just in the area of disguise only, I thought he was much more disruptive and did a good job with that.”
Last offseason, McCarthy went above and beyond to stress the importance of the safety position and its role in defending the middle of the field.
While the Packers have a decision to make on Hyde as a pending free agent this offseason, Burnett and Clinton-Dix are locked up through 2017. When the team reconvenes in the spring, McCarthy wants to continue expanding each player’s role in the defense.
When reflecting on how the 2016 season played out, McCarthy believes Burnett hit every target the coaching staff laid out for the 28-year-old safety.
“Definitely, and then some,” McCarthy said.