GREEN BAY – Darnell Savage couldn’t say for certain whether the Packers would call during the first round of NFL Draft.
But it didn’t come as a surprise when the “920” area code popped up on his phone on Thursday evening, either.
The Maryland senior safety didn’t have a lot of contact with Green Bay during the pre-draft process, but took notice of the Packers scouts who regularly attended practices in College Park throughout the season.
Months of concealed interest jumped to the forefront Thursday when Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst traded up to take the 5-foot-11, 198-pound safety with the 21st overall pick in the first round.
Green Bay dealt the 30th pick it acquired last year in a trade with New Orleans and two fourth-rounders (No. 114 and 118) to Seattle to move up nine spots.
Savage not only was the first safety to be selected in this year’s NFL Draft, but he also was the first defensive back to come off the board.
His calling card? Versatility and a knack for taking the ball away, having recorded seven of his eight collegiate interceptions over the past two seasons.
“I feel like I’m extremely versatile. I really bring that physical presence to the field and to the game,” Savage said. “I’m fast, I like to hit. I like to be around the ball. I like to make plays. I just love to play the game of football. The game of football is fun to me. Any time I’m out there playing, I’m going to give it my all and just enjoy it.”
After taking Michigan pass rusher Rashan Gary at 12th overall, Green Bay felt Savage’s combination of a 4.36-second time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and play-making ability was too good to pass up.
Take a look at Packers S during his college career.
Savage started at Maryland as a cornerback before the coaches approached him about the prospects of playing safety, feeling he had the smarts and physicality to excel at the position.
Savage wasn’t restricted to one spot, though. The Terrapins rotated him around the secondary, playing cover linebacker and nickel cornerback in some third-down defensive packages.
Despite the takeaways and a second-team All-Big Ten selection this past year, Savage was still considered an under-the-radar prospect in this year’s draft. He didn’t mind.
“I’ve always been an extremely confident person. I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder,” said Savage, a three-year starter who had 181 tackles and eight interceptions (two returned for a touchdown) in 45 career games.
“I heard I wasn’t big enough, can’t do this, can’t do that. And I just used it as motivation, I just let it fuel me. I always kept that in the back of my head, and I kind of had that chip on my shoulder when I played and it helped.”
The Packers began overhauling the safety position in October when they traded Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to Washington for the fourth-rounder they then sent to the Seahawks Thursday night.
With Tramon Williams pegged to move back to cornerback after finishing last season at safety, Green Bay addressed the position on the first day of free agency with the acquisition of former Chicago safety Adrian Amos.
Savage became familiar with Amos’ game after watching film of him and Eddie Jackson playing on the Bears’ back end.
“He’s extremely smart, always in the right place at the right time,” Savage said. “You can tell he takes it extremely serious and you can learn a lot from a guy like that, just being around him every day, not even just football but being around a guy that’s serious about what he does. It can teach you a lot.”
Gutekunst viewed Savage as “an absolute difference-maker” in a safety class that wasn’t as deep as other positions. Fearful Savage wouldn’t be there at 30, Gutekunst started working the phones immediately after drafting Gary and found a trade partner in Seattle.
He believes the versatility of both Amos and Savage should bring the best out of the Packers’ back end.
“He’s obviously a premiere athlete,” said Gutekunst of Savage. “He’s been an impact player for Maryland for a number of years. He’s able to close the gap, from centerfield and the hash. He’s aggressive, physical player who can take the ball away. He fits what we’re trying to do on the back end.”
Savage has overcome a lot of setbacks to get to this point. He broke his right leg as a high school junior and then overcame the death of Terrapins offensive lineman Jordan McNair this past year.
Savage has maintained a positive outlook throughout. Now, it's propelled him to becoming Maryland’s first defensive player to be selected in the first round since Shawn Merriman in 2005.
“It’s just so much adversity that I’ve just been through in my life,” Savage said. “Every single moment that I have to go through, I think it just makes me stronger. I really do think there are all positives that can be taken out of things that happen.
“I’m an extremely positive person, an extremely upbeat person. I never hang my head or dwell on the bad. It’s always great things that can come out of it.”