The wait is nearly over, Saturday morning at 8:20 AM central time the Packers will take the field for the start of training camp. Before then, however, let’s take a look at what has been perhaps the weakest part of the Packers defense in recent years: the secondary.
The Packers showed they are focusing on their defensive backfield by using their first round selection on safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix out of Alabama (21st overall), in the hopes of adding some play making ability to a group of safeties that didn’t come away with a single interception a year ago. M.D. Jennings was let go and signed by the rival Chicago Bears, but the Packers are returning five year veteran Morgan Burnett, third year safety Sean Richardson, second year pro Chris Banjo, and are bringing in two other rookies along with Clinton-Dix in Charles Clay (Hawai’i) and Tanner Miller (Iowa). The safety position seems to make up what will be the best position battle in this year’s camp as Richardson and Banjo fight to stave off the talented rookies who are looking to plant their feet on an NFL team.
Morgan Burnett was being touted a year ago as one of the most reliable safeties in the game coming off of a year when he didn’t miss a single defensive snap. The expectations weren’t met for him as he was injured early in the season and upon his return didn’t look the same, but his potential to be a play maker will keep him as the starting safety on this team. M.D. Jennings was made the scapegoat after a down year from the safety group, and we’ll see if Burnett’s play returns to form with some new talent around him.
The buzz will undoubtedly be around the first round selection, Clinton-Dix, and rightfully so. Clinton-Dix was a huge part of the success of an Alabama defense that was a force in the best division in college football. In ’12 he led the SEC with five interceptions including one in the BCS National Championship game vs. Notre Dame, and tallied 37 tackles. The Packers love what Clinton-Dix brings to the table and will look to get him on the field as soon as possible. Barring any injuries or a stand out performance from Banjo or Richardson in training camp it is likely to see Clinton-Dix starting opposite Morgan Burnett come September 4th.
Sean Richardson may be Clinton-Dix’s best competition for the second starting safety spot. Richardson made the team in 2012 as an undrafted free agent rookie and showed great athleticism during camp that year, landing himself a spot on special teams. He ultimately landed on injured reserve, however, and hasn’t played a full season since. Richardson has big upside with above average size (6’2″) and speed which helped him establish himself as a dominant player in the multiple coverage units on special teams. Richardson will be given every opportunity to earn playing time on defense this training camp, and it is up to him to show the coaching staff he deserves the starting nod.
Chris Banjo is the type of NFL player that coaches love to have on their team. He has an unstoppable motor and a nose for the football. His senior year at Southern Methodist University he recorded 82 total tackles, and the year before 92 total tackles. He is undersized at 5’10” and 207 lbs, but his motor and drive makes him the dark horse of this group to earn the starting spot.
The cornerback position looks promising for the Packers heading into training camp. In fact, it may be the deepest it has been in years. Sam Shields was given big money this off season to stay with the Packers after coming off a great contract year which established him as one of the best cover corners in the game. Tramon Williams showed his doubters he can still be one of the best in the game and shut up critics who said he needed to be cut after last season. Instead Williams goes into this year looking to earn himself a big money deal as well.
Shields and Williams appear to be the only two cornerbacks on this team who are assured a starting spot. The nickle corner is yet to be determined, and the competition will be fierce. Jarrett Bush, Micah Hyde, Casey Hayward, and Davon House are all returning as well, and all have on-field experience from their time in Green Bay. Casey Hayward probably showed the most promise last season, and earned the most league-wide respect, but the spot is hardly his to lose. Micah Hyde showed cover skills in addition to blossoming as a return specialist late in the season, and while you don’t want a critical piece of your team in the risky role of punt returner, Hyde is a prime candidate to be able to assume both roles. Jarrett Bush may be nearing the end of his career, at least with the Packers, as his role with the defense has diminished since the 2010 Super Bowl season, and unless he shows an unlikely amount of progress from last season he will be left off of the final 53-man roster.
Demetri Goodson, the Gonzaga Bulldog point guard turned Baylor Bear defensive back, is the feel good story of this group. Having not played football since high school he decided to transfer and attempt a return to the game, setting his sights on making the NFL. The NFL isn’t exactly a place where the feel good story makes the team, though, not unless that feel good story comes with a player who can play. Unfortunately for Goodson, he hasn’t had that much opportunity to prove he can play. His athletic ability is undoubted, but his history of injuries keeping him off the field is his biggest red flag. In three years at Baylor he appeared in just 19 games (17 starts), missing extended periods of time with torn ligaments in his ankle and multiple fractures in his forearm.
It has been made very clear by this team this offseason that defense is the biggest concern, and the biggest focus. While pass rush and injuries effects the outcome of a defense’s production, the secondary of this team has not been able to step up on a consistent enough basis and needs to improve. The position battles at safety and cornerback will hopefully allow for the talent this secondary has to blossom and turn into a dominant force come the regular season.