Burnett Beefs Up Safety Position

Last season when starting safety Atari Bigby got injured in Week 1 of the regular season, safeties coach Darren Perry admitted the defensive staff was scrambling a bit to figure out how to man the position without adequate depth. - More Packers.com Draft Page

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Last season when starting safety Atari Bigby got injured in Week 1 of the regular season, safeties coach Darren Perry admitted the defensive staff was scrambling a bit to figure out how to man the position without adequate depth.

Hopefully the selection of safety Morgan Burnett in the third round of Friday night's NFL Draft helps to fix that.

"No question about us being thin last year," Perry said. "When we lost Atari that first game it hurt us a little bit."

Burnett was impressive enough that for the third time in three years, General Manager Ted Thompson traded up to for a defensive player he had targeted. This time Thompson gave up his fourth-round pick (No. 122 overall) to the Philadelphia Eagles in order to swap third-rounders and move up 15 spots, from No. 86 to No. 71, to nab Burnett, an early entry junior out of Georgia Tech.

Burnett's all-around game is what attracted the Packers to him. He's not a one-trick pony as a safety, like some who can lay the big hit but can't catch the ball, or can make the interception but get bowled over in run support.

At 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds, Burnett can play like an extra linebacker in the box as well as roam the deep middle in coverage, dual skills that Perry emphasized are necessary for safeties in the Packers' 3-4 scheme. And he complements that versatility with impressive ball skills that helped him pick off 14 passes in just three seasons at Georgia Tech, two shy of the school's career record.

"It's just having a knack for the football," Burnett said. "When I see that ball in the air, I just like to compete and want to be the only one coming down with it."

Statistically, Burnett was best at that as a sophomore in 2008. After earning freshman all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors his first year as a reserve defensive back with three interceptions, he moved into the starting lineup his second season and tied for third in the nation with seven interceptions, returning one for a touchdown.

That led to All-America honors from several publications and a first-team all-ACC selection. He followed that up with a solid though not as decorated junior season, intercepting four passes and making second-team all-ACC, though he played four games with a cast for a broken thumb.

"Fourteen interceptions speaks for itself," Perry said. "To do that in the short amount time he was there speaks volumes about what he can be. He's still a young player, obviously he's a junior coming out. We feel he's still got a lot of room to grow and Morgan will be the first to tell you that."

Perry described Burnett as a player who possesses the kind of instincts that don't need to be coached -- a feel for coverages, routes and angles that can help young players assimilate to the pro game quickly. The GM agreed.

"He does have good anticipation, he does have good feel for space," Thompson said. "He is a little bit like a center fielder. Some guys have played baseball, some guys haven't, but he looks like he probably played a little baseball. I have no idea if he did or not, but he sees the ball. He understands angles and he knows how to get in front of it, and the opportunities that I saw, he made the catch and he made the interceptions. I'm not saying that he didn't drop a chance somewhere, but I never saw it."

Burnett not only will be expected to provide depth at safety, but he could push Bigby for the starting job alongside two-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins. That could be a tall order for a rookie, but no matter who wins the job, the hope is that with Collins, Bigby, Burnett and reserve Derrick Martin there's enough coverage now in case injuries strike.

{sportsad300}That wasn't the case early last season when Aaron Rouse was released after Week 2 and Martin, acquired in a trade after training camp, was still learning the defensive system.

"We're going to throw him in there and see how it works out," Thompson said. "He's got some pretty good competition in front of him, but I think he's a legitimate pro or we wouldn't have made that trade."

Perry cautioned not to count out Bigby, though, the veteran who has been beset by injuries the past couple of years. Perry expects Bigby to use any push from Burnett as motivation to return his game to 2007 form, when he earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors in December and laid several impact hits in the postseason.

"I'm sure Atari is going to have a lot to say about (the starting job), as most pros would," Perry said. "They're not going to hand anything over to him. So he will have his work cut out for him, but the thing you do like as a coaching staff is when you get competition like that, it brings out the best in all of your players. We've created some competition and it should be interesting to see how things unfold."

The Packers are also interested to see how well Burnett's knack for the football translates to the NFL. The Green Bay defense has intercepted 52 passes over the past two seasons, including a league-leading 30 in 2009.

There may be only so many interceptions to go around in a secondary that already includes the likes of Charles Woodson, Al Harris, Tramon Williams, Collins and Bigby. But if there are any more to be had out there, perhaps Burnett will get them.

"He's able to catch it," said Brian Gutekunst, the Packers' Southeast scout who followed Burnett's career. "He kind of fits what we've been doing the last few years here, and I think he'll be one of those players who can help create turnovers. You just see a guy with that kind of size move around, you get excited about what he can do for us."

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