Burnett In Prime Position To Learn, Compete


For a rookie in his first week of professional football practices, safety Morgan Burnett couldn't ask for a better opportunity to show he belongs.

The third-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech is getting all his reps during the current organized team activities (OTAs) with the first-team defense alongside Pro Bowler Nick Collins.

No, the pads aren't on yet and the players are just in helmets and shorts, but for a young player who would love to follow Collins' career path - starting as a rookie and making two Pro Bowls in his first five seasons - taking snaps side-by-side with a polished pro isn't a bad way to learn.

"It's really an honor," Burnett said of being paired with Collins for OTAs. "He's a great athlete, a great smart player. Just watching him, asking him questions, (I'm) learning a lot from him, and that helps out a lot."

Because Atari Bigby has yet to sign his restricted free agent tender and Derrick Martin is out following ankle surgery, it's not necessarily a surprise that Burnett - for whom the Packers traded up 15 spots in the draft to select - is running with the No. 1 unit.

Burnett downplayed the "first-unit" status as circumstantial, but it's still a rare opportunity for a rookie, particularly on a defense as talented as Green Bay's, which ranked No. 2 in the league a year ago. Burnett is the first to admit it's not all smooth sailing out there right now, trying to learn all the calls and checks and how to communicate them, but the more he plays with the first unit the steeper his learning curve should be.

"You can tell he's a rookie," Collins said. "All rookies come in here a little nervous, but at the same time, he's out there doing his job, doing the best he can, and hopefully he can catch up with everybody.

"He can play. They drafted him, so he must have some playmaking ability for himself. That's why he's here. Hopefully he can get on the same page with all the veterans."

That's precisely what Burnett wants to do, but he knows it will take time and a lot of dedicated effort. While adjusting to the speed of the pro game, he also needs to master the terminology in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme because communication is such a big part of the safety position.

The playbook volume isn't exactly small, either. The introduction Burnett got to the defensive playbook 2" weeks ago in rookie orientation was just that, an introduction.

"I've got a long way to go," he said. "I'm trying to learn as much as I can, and when I get to the hotel room, I've got a lot of studying to do."

That's the right attitude and approach, according to someone who knows a little about early NFL success. Second-year linebacker Clay Matthews, who went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie last season, said he has emphasized to the rookie class to get as much as they can out of this next month on the field.

Matthews missed much of last year's OTAs with a hamstring injury, but he said he made every effort to keep up mentally in the meetings and on his own time. That's the only way he got through the playbook without drowning in it, and he was still able to make a favorable impression when he did return to action.

"For these rookies coming in, they're swimming right now," Matthews said. "There's no doubt about it, seeing them out there making mistakes. All of us as rookies went through the same thing, and this is really the only time you get to put in work going into camp. Because in camp if you can't keep up, you'll be left behind and they'll go ahead with the players who know what they're doing.

"I've been talking with the rookies, stressing to them, 'Get in your playbooks. Do what you need to do now, which is studying. Don't worry about going out, don't worry about anything else. You guys are staying at (a local hotel), Green Bay, Wisconsin. There's not a whole lot to do out here, so get in your playbook, know what you're doing, and that's how you'll be successful.'"

{sportsad300}It's also how Burnett will make the best impression on the defensive veterans, especially because he plays a position that demands he communicate and take charge at times.

Safeties coach Darren Perry noted that it was easier last year for young players to fit in on defense because everyone was learning the new scheme. But now that it's Year 2 for the veterans, not everyone is on a level playing field, and that puts added pressure on a rookie like Burnett who is trying to learn both safety spots and put himself in position to compete with Bigby for a starting job.

"His mistakes now are going to be magnified, because he's a quarterback back there along with Nick and Atari, and if he says something that's not quite right, he's affecting 10 other guys," Perry said. "And they'll be quick to let him know, because they're going to know if something isn't right."

It's only been a brief preview, but Perry said the coaching staff likes what it sees from Burnett so far. Perry calls him a "natural" safety with good instincts and feel for the game, attributes that should only sharpen as he progresses through the OTAs.

Burnett had 14 interceptions in just three college seasons, the kind of playmaking ability the Packers would enjoy adding to a defense that already led the league in interceptions last season. Perry and his fellow coaches won't get to evaluate Burnett's tackling ability until the pads come on in training camp, but that's OK, because there's plenty on his plate at the moment.

"The biggest thing is being here now, and having these OTAs, having the ability to get the learning part of it pre-training camp, so you're not coming into training camp for the first time hearing it and having four weeks, five weeks to get ready and having us make a decision on a guy in terms of what his role is going to be on our team," Perry said. "This process right here is invaluable because you get a chance to really go through almost a trial training camp from an installation standpoint."

And alongside a Pro Bowler no less.

"I just look at it as an opportunity to learn," Burnett said. "Wherever coach tells me to go, that's where I'm going to go, and just try to watch the vets and learn as much as I can."

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