GREEN BAY – Tramon Williams didn’t even need to see Darnell Savage practice to get a feel for what kind of defensive back the Packers’ secondary was getting in the rookie first-round pick out of Maryland.
The 13th-year veteran had already heard enough in the meeting room.
“Even before we stepped on the field, I recognized how smart the kid was,” said Williams after Tuesday’s first public practice of organized team activities.
“Most rookies, you don’t see that right away. You wonder, ‘OK, can he pick up this? Can he do this? Can he do that?’ But man, this kid pretty much knows what we’ve put in already and he’s asking for more. You don’t get that from rookies…(that’s) just not what rookies do.”
Williams has been around some good ones, too. He was in Green Bay during the infancy of three-time All-Pro safety Nick Collins’ time as a starter, and he played alongside Morgan Burnett, Micah Hyde and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as rookies.
Much like those former Packers defensive backs, Savage is in position to have a role right out of the gate in a secondary that came into the offseason with two starting spots available on the back end.
General Manager Brian Gutekunst filled the first vacancy in the opening hours of free agency in March, wooing fifth-year veteran Adrian Amos away from the Chicago Bears.
Gutekunst then traded up nine spots to make Savage the first defensive back selected in last month’s NFL Draft, taking the 5-foot-11, 198-pound safety at No. 21 overall.
It’s unusual for rookies to get first-team reps from the outset of the offseason program, but the secondary reset afforded Savage the opportunity to work alongside Amos and the starting defense during this week’s OTAs.
Count Amos among those impressed with what they’ve seen from Savage early on.
“Coming in, he's in his books and about learning,” Amos said. “He seems very coachable. He's taking it all in, and just moving forward. We're grinding and learning the playbook, and he's been great so far.”
Amos can attest to what it’s like to play right away in the NFL. He started all 16 games and led the Bears’ defense with 1,029 snaps as a rookie fifth-round pick out of Penn State in 2015.
As a third-year pro in 2017, Amos also shepherded rookie safety Eddie Jackson. The two developed into one of the premier back-end tandems in the NFL, with Jackson earning a first-team All-Pro nod this past year with 51 tackles, 15 passes defensed and six interceptions.
Amos also had his best statistical season as a pro in 2018, setting new career highs with 73 tackles, nine passes defensed and two interceptions.
At first glance, Savage appears to possess many of the same strengths that have made Jackson successful at free safety, particularly his ball-hawking traits. Savage had seven INTs and two touchdown returns during his final two seasons with the Terrapins.
Exact responsibilities will be decided in the weeks and months ahead, as far as who takes more snaps near the line of scrimmage vs. the deep middle of the field. For the time being, Amos is more interested in getting to know Savage better, both as a person and a player.
“Watching some college tape, obviously, he plays very rangy in the back end,” Amos said. “I feel like both of us can play both things, so I feel like we can complement each other. Playing down over the tackle and on the back end, showing range and things like that.”
The missing piece for the Packers’ defense over the past few seasons has been stability at the safety position. Green Bay shuffled through a half dozen starters last season, including Williams during the final seven games after Clinton-Dix was dealt to Washington at the trade deadline.
Still a student of the game after 12 NFL seasons, Williams spends time every offseason scouting secondary trends – what makes the best units the best and what led to others falling short.
The conclusion Williams has drawn is it all goes back to football aptitude and intelligence. It’s no coincidence perhaps the best defenses Williams has played on featured players such as Charles Woodson, Al Harris and Collins.
“It just makes it easier to play when you got guys who understand the game,” Williams said. “You can do things that you’re not supposed to do. You can make plays. That’s one thing I always go back and study secondaries, and not just corners because a lot of teams have good corners but not everybody plays well. You try to see why they don’t play well or why this team is playing better or this.”
With Jaire Alexander coming off an award-winning debut and Kevin King back from injury, the 36-year-old Williams feels revitalized watching a new wave of defensive backs flood the Packers’ secondary.
That includes Savage and Amos, who is eager to grow alongside the rookie in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s scheme.
“We're going to work together, and we'll see where both our strengths lie, what we want to do,” Amos said. “Hopefully, what you want is both of us can do both things, so that coming out every Sunday nobody can get a bead on who's doing what.”