Strength at safety stands out early on Packers' defense

Position group has come a long way in a few short years


GREEN BAY – For the Packers' safeties, there's never a dull moment in the meeting room, according to veteran leader Morgan Burnett.

There's nothing quiet about their play on the field, either.

If there's a position group getting itself noticed every single day at Ray Nitschke Field thus far in training camp, it's the safeties.

Pro Bowler Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's voice is unmistakable, barking out commands, just before he dives across the middle to break up a pass. Burnett and rookie Josh Jones are taking plenty of snaps at inside linebacker in sub-packages. Kentrell Brice is racing up from back deep to fill against the run. Jones and Marwin Evans have intercepted passes.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy called it a safety group as strong as he's seen in two-plus decades in the NFL. Veteran receiver Jordy Nelson didn't hesitate in calling it one of the strengths of the team.

How it all comes together will tell a big chunk of the story of the 2017 Packers defense. The results this fall and winter will provide the more meaningful judgment.

But for now, in the heat of summer, the Packers are excited about the mix of attributes they have at safety and how they can best maximize their impact.

"I think all those guys will have opportunities (to play)," McCarthy said. "That's the way I anticipate offenses are going to go against our defense, and we'll be in sub personnel groups a lot of the time."

The nickel, dime, and all their variations are defining NFL defenses now, which has required safeties to expand their skill sets.

Burnett and Clinton-Dix, with a combined 10 NFL seasons to their credit, know the defense well enough to play anywhere. As Brice and Evans get more comfortable in the scheme in their second years, Jones is the new guy getting a lot thrown at him, and responding at every turn.

"That's the thing about schematics – the coaches put you in a position, and it's up to you," said Jones, the second-round pick out of North Carolina State.

"They're going to hold you accountable to learn the playbook. It's complex, but once you get it down, it'll let you do what you do as a football player."

That's what Jones continues to call himself, a football player, when asked about the safety/linebacker hybrid position.

Burnett started to take on the duty last year, and McCarthy liked his effectiveness in those packages so much it was no surprise the Packers added another option and invested a high pick in a player like Jones.

It wouldn't be a shock to see both on the field together as linebackers in certain situations, either, a luxury the Packers can afford with Brice another deep option to pair with Clinton-Dix in the more traditional safety role.

"Everyone brings uniqueness, and it starts with 'DP,' Darren Perry," Burnett said of his longtime position coach. "He allows us to go out there, play ball, and do what we do best. He never over-coaches us. He's always guiding us. Playing for someone like that makes it fun to come to work.

"We all have to know what each other is doing, because you never know what position you could be plugged in at."

While Clinton-Dix is a rising star in the league taking on more leadership responsibility – "Anything that goes on in the back end, you can hold me accountable. I'm going to make sure these guys are ready to play," he said – Burnett is the steady, veteran presence who's seen it all. His respect throughout the entire locker room ranks as high as any player's on defense.

Burnett quietly made two impressive plays in Tuesday's practice, which featured a lot of red-zone work. On one play at the goal line, he read tight end Lance Kendricks leaking out into the end zone as quarterback Brett Hundley carried out an exaggerated play-action fake from a run-heavy look.

With help from linebacker Blake Martinez, Kendricks was never open, and Hundley's bootleg ended with a throwaway.

Later, Burnett was right in tight end Martellus Bennett's hip pocket on a crossing route near the goal line and stuck his hand in to knock the ball away.

Flashy plays? No, but they were classic Burnett, who appreciates the challenge of facing an accomplished, "crafty" veteran like Bennett.

"If I go against that every day, you can't help but get better," he said.

The Packers have steadily done that at the entire position over the last four years, after the 2013 season exposed a thin group that featured Burnett but otherwise needed an overhaul.

Last year showed the most growth in terms of both playmaking and depth. Clinton-Dix, drafted in the first round in 2014, earned his first Pro Bowl nod. Also, Brice and Evans made the team as undrafted rookies, prompting the since-departed Micah Hyde, a converted cornerback, to go back to his old position more.

Now enter Jones, who by all accounts will be making an impact as a rookie and has been all business since his arrival.

"That's the NFL, man. You got drafted, it's time to show up," Jones said. "There ain't no redshirt year, like in college. You have to put on your big-boy pads and step up and be a man. This is a job. It's not school. School's over with."

So is the rebuilding of the position. Now it's time to see what comes to fruition.

McCarthy acknowledged the safeties are playing a key role in how the defense is schemed, while Nelson can see from the other side of the ball the emphasis on taking advantage of their athleticism.

"You can tell what they're trying to do," Nelson said. "They're trying to get them on the field as much as possible. They're playmakers."

That's the plan, anyway.

"Everyone on defense has the ability to bring it," Brice said. "We're trying to make that our M.O."

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