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Darnell Savage moving on from 'bad taste' of last year

Packers’ fifth-year safety vows to emerge stronger from season of adversity


GREEN BAY – Several players on the Packers' defense are looking forward to putting the disappointment of 2022 behind them.

Maybe no individual more so than safety Darnell Savage.

The former first-round draft pick had his worst season last year, his fourth in the league, getting benched at one point in late November and then working to reclaim his playing time and starting role.

It was a mini-redemption story of sorts, but now Savage is ready for more than the Cliff's Notes version.

"I'm excited. I'm ready to go – like, right now," Savage said following a recent OTA practice. "Anxious. Had a long offseason to kind of think about last year, had this kind of bad taste in my mouth for the longest time, so I'm ready to get it out."

He'll get that opportunity, as he remains a starting safety while an open competition is afoot amongst a handful of players for the companion spot to replace Adrian Amos.

But what exactly went wrong last year? Savage went from a PFWA All-Rookie selection in 2019, to intercepting four passes in a span of five games in 2020, to recording multiple INTs for a third straight year and ranking third on the team in passes broken up in 2021 to … no man's land on a struggling defense.

It was a precipitous fall for the first defensive back taken in the 2019 NFL Draft (No. 21 overall), for whom the Packers traded up no less.

Much has been made of whether he's better suited to play deep or closer to the line of scrimmage, or if nickel/slot corner is actually his best spot. When defensive backs coach Ryan Downard reviews video and works with Savage, though, he doesn't wade into those weeds.

To Downard, it's about attitude and play style more than position and responsibility, and that's been at the heart of their discussions. The aggressive safety that's all over the Maryland game film in his college days faded away last year.

"I think Darnell's best when he pulls the trigger and he lets it all hang out," Downard said. "He's got to trust himself."

That message appears to be taking hold, and for what it's worth, Savage played centerfield perfectly to intercept a deep ball from Jordan Love in the May 31 OTA watched by the media.

"Just going out there and letting loose," Savage said of the approach he must take. "I feel like sometimes I'm a little too smart and I overthink things.

"I'm just a cerebral guy. That's just how I am. I think for me, it's not like I haven't made plays in this league before. There's been stretches where I felt exactly how I felt at Maryland, if not better. So I know it's there."

To his credit, he took last year's demotion like a professional. He didn't grouse about it, and he put full effort into special-teams assignments.

He eventually worked his way back into the defensive rotation, and he was in the right place at the right time to snag a deflected pass against Minnesota in Week 17 and return it 75 yards for a touchdown, sparking a rout of the NFC North champions.

To that point in 2022, he had played 14 games with no picks and just two deflected passes. He then followed up snapping his INT drought with 11 tackles and two passes defensed in Week 18 vs. Detroit, his first game with double-digit tackles since the 2020 regular-season finale at Chicago.

Savage appreciates the support he had from teammates in the locker room through his rough patch, saying "they had my back" and the "brotherhood" stayed behind him.

The coaching staff and front office never gave up on him, either, and that support has carried over to the new year.

"It meant a lot," he said. "I know who I am and I think they know who I am, too. Like I said, it's just a matter of opportunity and going to get it. I'm excited about the vibe and the direction everything's going right now as far as everybody's attitude. It's refreshing."

Now the looming question is whether the short-term rebound will carry over for the long haul as Savage plays out the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.

"It either breaks you or makes you stronger, right?" Downard said. "I was proud of the way he handled it … the way he fought and clawed his way back.

"You can see on the tape, although it wasn't perfect, he was making efforts to get better in some of those techniques that we pointed out to him. Playing a more physical brand, addressing blocks the right way. We've just got to (get) consistency, right? Every play."

As for the other starting safety spot, and how the cornerback position takes shape when Eric Stokes returns from injury, Downard stressed the coaching staff must "figure out how these puzzle pieces fit together" in the secondary for 2023.

The big picture isn't Savage's task, though, just himself. Given what he's been through, that's enough for now.

"I never shy away from any experiences or any life lessons or anything like that," he said. "I looked at this as, 'I'm going to come out better on the other side.' And thinking back on it, it was tough. Because I still have to come in here, I still have to be a good teammate, I still have to do everything the right way.

"It was tough. You learn a lot about yourself. So maybe I needed that."

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