If OTAs are truly a “learning phase,” as Head Coach Mike McCarthy likes to say, no position on the Packers roster is learning more than safety right now.
With Nick Collins gone and Charlie Peprah recovering from offseason arthroscopic knee surgery, the Packers have worked through three weeks of OTAs with primarily Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings as the top safety tandem, and rookie Jerron McMillian and Anthony Levine as the second pair.
The total number of NFL starts for that quartet is 20, and they all belong to Burnett, who is entering his third year and resisting any attempts to label him the “old” veteran of the group.
“Levine is actually older than me,” Burnett said with a smile. Almost 22 months older, in fact.
All kidding aside, it’s a group that’s as young as it gets. Jennings made the team as an undrafted rookie last year but played almost exclusively on special teams. McMillian (No. 22, pictured, alongside No. 42 Burnett) was selected in the fourth-round of this year’s draft, and Levine has previously been on the practice squad. The other two safeties on the roster, Sean Richardson and newly acquired Micah Pellerin, are undrafted rookies.
OTAs were made for position groups like this, for players who need to study and learn before the pads come on. As the Packers look to replace Collins and upgrade a pass defense that allowed a record number of yards last year, getting this young group prepared now to compete for roster spots in training camp could pay off nicely down the road.
“We know we’re all young and we just have to communicate out there and help each other out,” said Burnett, whose position on the roster and in the defensive huddle is the most secure. “At the same time, with us getting a lot of reps like that, it helps us understand the defense a little better, understand the checks.”
Working mostly with the first unit, Jennings has received a lot of attention. He added some weight to his listed 187-pound frame in the offseason, and he’s taking advantage of all this on-field time he didn’t have last year due to the lockout.
He said it’s “like night and day,” comparing how he feels now to last year, especially mentally.
“I think I’ve picked up on a lot of the little things in the defense, which are probably the most important things,” he said. “All the formation adjustments and things like that. I just have to keep fighting, go out there every day, put good things on film and lay it all on the line.”
Levine was doing just that last year when his promising training camp was cut short by a concussion. He’s likely to be a factor again this summer, as will McMillian, who was drafted only one round later than Burnett was two years ago.
How the position will sort itself out is impossible to predict. There remains speculation that veteran cornerback Charles Woodson could move to safety, but Woodson hasn’t practiced during the voluntary OTAs. McCarthy reiterated on Tuesday that Woodson will continue to play “multiple positions” on defense, as he has done in the past.
And then there’s Peprah, who suggested to reporters he’s been unfairly scapegoated from the outside for the secondary’s failures a year ago. Right or wrong, that’s probably because he was smack in the middle of the Giants’ two biggest offensive plays in the NFC divisional playoff loss, the 66-yard catch-and-run for a TD and the 37-yard “Hail Mary” on the final play of the first half, both by receiver Hakeem Nicks.
“I don’t feel like I did any worse than anybody else back there but, for whatever reason, the point of view is all the bad plays were on me,” said Peprah, who was second on the team with five interceptions in the regular season and candidly admitted he was inconsistent in 2011.
“You can ask my coaches, they’ll tell you I did my job most of the time. But that’s the nature of the job, though. Sometimes you’re back there and it looks like you’re at fault. That’s the nature of the business.”
Peprah, who said he expects to be healthy and ready for training camp, won’t be giving up his starting job without a fight.
“You want to prove people wrong, you want to rise to the occasion,” he said. “The main thing is self-improvement. I don’t go out there to purposely put down my doubters or whatever, but really I just want to improve on myself. That’s my goal.”
That’s been the goal of all the young safeties throughout the offseason, which concludes with next week’s three-day minicamp.
Their growth will continue, and so will their youth. How much they benefited from this “learning phase” will reveal itself in due time.
“When you communicate and understand the plays, you build that trust from your teammates,” said Burnett, who speaks from experience, having started as a rookie in 2010. “Every time you step out onto that field, you have to be accountable. No matter if you’re a rookie or a 12-year vet, you have to be accountable to the other 10 guys out there.”