GREEN BAY — As darkness turned to dawn on Saturday morning, Marwin Evans tossed and turned restlessly in his bed with final cuts on the horizon.
A million thoughts raced through the undrafted rookie safety’s mind – did I do enough to make the Packers? Did I impress the coaches? What do I do if I am released?
Evans, a native of Milwaukee who starred at Oak Creek High School, eventually succumbed to sleep around 6 a.m. in hopes of waking up to good news.
Evans’ phone was silent all day until his fears were neutralized by a phone call from safeties coach Darren Perry, notifying him that he’d made the Packers’ roster.
“It’s one of those things like first day of school or first home game, I was just anxious,” said Evans earlier this week. “I didn’t know what to expect. Just a crazy time.”
While Evans drove down to Milwaukee to celebrate with his family and friends, the Packers were putting the finishing touches on a 53-man roster that consisted of six safeties.
Going into camp, it would have been difficult to envision Green Bay carrying so many with Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Micah Hyde and Chris Banjo all returning.
Yet, Evans and fellow undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice left the personnel department little choice but to keep both following impressive preseasons in which they combined for 28 tackles and an interception.
They not only won places on the Packers’ roster, but also caught the attention of the most veteran player on the roster in the process.
“You look at those two undrafted safeties,” said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, unsolicited. “Beginning of camp, you say we have four studs at safety. We’re kind of set there. Those guys show up every single week, make plays and lay some hits on guys and have some interceptions and next thing you know they both make the team.”
There were several factors that played into the Packers’ decision to keep six safeties, but perhaps none bigger than the emphasis the NFL has placed on the position in recent years.
Safeties always have been hybrid in nature – fast and agile enough to hang with receivers, tight ends and running backs, but also strong enough to tackle in the box or open field.
Although Burnett and Clinton-Dix have developed into every-down stalwarts on the back end, Hyde and Banjo have developed roles both on defense and special teams.
With the way offenses are challenging defenses with exotic formations and untraditional personnel, it’s becoming essential to counter with creativity.
That’s where the Packers feel safeties come in.
“You have to have guys who are physical enough to come up and tackle the running backs yet athletic enough to cover the inside receivers, tight ends, running backs,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
“They give you a lot of versatility and flexibility in your defense because you can use guys in different spots. As we move along and it becomes a little more of a matchup game, you’re seeing more safeties who are maybe undersized linebacker-type guys come down (closer to the line of scrimmage) and play.”
The Packers haven’t always been so plush at the position. As recently as three years ago, there was talk about whether Green Bay would take as few as three into the regular season.
Instead, Banjo came out of nowhere to make the roster as the fourth safety despite signing at the start of camp. A year later, the Packers drafted Clinton-Dix and moved Hyde to safety to double-down on the depth at the position.
Watching Evans and Brice from the sidelines, Burnett can tell the two rookies can play. By keeping both, Capers has no shortage of options for how to deploy the safety contingent.
Now in his seventh season, Burnett was pleased to learn about Evans and Brice being onboard.
“It goes all the way back to OTAs and we all build a relationship with one another,” Burnett said. “When you see guys like that come in, they bust their butt from Day 1 and are very professional, to see those guys get rewarded like that, that’s a very special thing.”
Burnett says it’s always “sad to see your fellow brothers leave,” but he didn’t have to say bye to many this year. The only safety the Packers cut on Saturday – rookie Jermaine Whitehead – returned on the practice squad the following day.
The NFL is evolving and the Packers see the safety position as a key part of the adjustment process.
While many teams have invested high-round draft choices into finding do-it-all defenders, the Packers have two unsung prospects to develop in Brice and Evans, who both admit to carrying a “chip” on their shoulders after going undrafted.
For Evans, it’s taken two stints at community colleges and a stop at Utah State to get back to Wisconsin. It’s an opportunity he doesn’t take for granted.
“It’s a big accomplishment, just something you can finally look back on like, ‘I made it,’” Evans said. “All the hard work, grinding, working out, practicing, it’s finally paying off. I’m not going to say it paid off because I’m still grinding and still working, but it’s paying off.”
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