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Packers Hope To Avoid Deja Vu

by Mike Conklin

E-mail: mikeconklin@packerpedia.com
May 28, 2013


Baseball legend Yogi Berra was the king of quirky one-liners. After watching his Yankees teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs, something they did no fewer than ten times, Berra once famously quipped, "It's deja vu all over again."

There may be a strangely familiar feeling in Green Bay as well these days, in terms of how this year's roster is shaping up. Packers fans may not need to try very hard to channel their inner Yogi.

A year ago, the Packers went into the offseason with an unproven group of running backs. Ryan Grant was not offered a contract to return. James Starks had two years of experience, but he had not been able to stay on the field. The Packers had invested a third-round draft pick on Alex Green the previous year and liked what they saw at times, but he had missed most of his rookie season to a torn ligament in his knee. Back then, the Packers also seemed to be intrigued by Brandon Saine, an undrafted player from Ohio State that had been promoted from the practice squad to the regular roster in the middle of the 2011 season.

Many outsiders expected the Packers to either draft a running back or re-sign Ryan Grant, but the draft and free agency period came and went without any roster moves. The Packers seemed content to go into the season with that unproven group of players at that position, choosing to bank on future potential rather than proven production. Mike McCarthy appeared confident that his staff could coach those players up.

"Your job as a coach is to take the individual and his strengths and maximize those and develop those things that you perceive as a weakness," McCarthy told ESPN Wisconsin last July. "And the one thing we perceive as a weakness in the running back group is youth.

"We feel like we have a very good formula of success for developing young players. That’s really the only –- I don’t even like to say the word 'concern,' because I’m not concerned about it. It’s really the only obstacle that group needs to overcome," McCarthy said.

The Packers stuck with that plan all throughout last offseason, until they were faced with no other alternative but to seek veteran help a couple weeks into training camp. Both James Starks and Brandon Saine were missing practice time due to injuries, Alex Green was still on a snap count coming off of his ACL injury, and the Packers could not avoid the fact that the position desperately needed to be fortified. The Packers signed Cedric Benson, a relatively proven commodity.

In that case, the Packers gambled on inexperience and lost. The running back position never really provided balance for the offense all year, although late-season addition DuJuan Harris did show signs of promise.

The same thing happened in 2011 when the Packers rolled the dice that one of three young outside linebackers would emerge across from Clay Matthews. Brad Jones, Erik Walden, and Frank Zombo were given every opportunity to take that spot and run with it but none of them were able to capitalize on the opportunity. As it turned out, the Packers spent a first round pick on that position in the following draft when they chose Nick Perry to be the pass rushing bookend to Matthews.

This year the Packers are gambling on youth once again, but this time around the uncertainty surrounds the safety position. When examining last year's approach to the running back position to how this offseason is playing out with the safeties, the two situations offer several parallels.

Much like Ryan Grant was not invited back last offseason, Charles Woodson was thanked for his services and released in February.

Going into last season, the Packers appeared to be counting heavily on James Starks despite the fact that he had only split snaps with other players in his sophomore season, after having only played sparingly as a rookie late-round pick (until the playoffs, at least). M.D. Jennings now enters his third year after having split snaps in 2012, and barely played as a rookie undrafted free agent in 2011. Starks has been unable to stay on the field consistently due to injury concerns. To be fair, Jennings has proven durable thus far, but he does not have prototypical size for his position. As a result, questions remain whether he could hold up over the long haul playing at only 190 pounds.

In 2012, the Packers were excited to see what former third-round pick Alex Green would do in his second year with the team after having shown glimpses of promise as a rookie. This year, a similar scenario unfolds with former fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian. The second-year safety from Maine will be given every chance to succeed this year, much like Alex Green when he was given double-digit carries in nine out of ten games from October through mid-December.

To continue with the comparison, both Brandon Saine and Sean Richardson gained the favor of coaches while spending time on the roster as rookie undrafted free agents. Richardson may even be a bigger question mark than Saine was at this point last season, as Richardson is coming off of neck surgery in January.

Staying true to their approach last offseason, the Packers appear unconcerned with the state of affairs.

"It’s an opportunity to compete," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said when asked about the safeties last week after the first public OTA practice. "When you look at how much M.D. and McMillian played last year, those are two young players that played a lot of snaps. I look for them to make that jump.

"It's going to be very competitive."

Competition will likely continue to be the buzzword in their position group meeting room throughout the offseason, and a similar refrain was repeated in the locker room last week.

"There's really no set group," Morgan Burnett told reporters after practice. "There's no starters. We're all interchangeable. We just work together. We have a close group in that room and we just try to find ways to compete and try to make each other better."

Despite the talk about there being no set group, Burnett appears to have little to worry about. He played every defensive snap for the Packers last season, and McCarthy recently went on record praising Burnett's leadership and communication skills.

The question remains at the other safety position. As important of a role as competition may play in the development of young players, the Packers learned last year that talent, experience, and durability also play a major role. Twelve months ago, much of the conversation about the running back position sounded very similar to what we are hearing about the safeties now. Last year's gamble on youth didn't pan out and the Packers ended up spending two draft picks to shore up that group. It is safe to say that the Packers don't want to be in a position where they have to spend a high draft pick on a safety next year.

One other subplot to consider while watching this situation unfold is that Morgan Burnett is now entering the final year of his contract. Unless the Packers sign him to an extension before the end of the season, he will be eligible for free agency next spring. As the only proven safety on the roster, Burnett plays a key role in the defense and would be a major loss if he were to leave. The top safety in this year's free agent market, Dashon Goldson, signed a contract averaging over $8 million per year. Ed Reed will turn 35 in September and is not the same player he used to be, but still signed for $5 million per season in a multi-year deal. After already breaking the bank for Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, the Packers may need to tread very carefully around the salary cap if they want to be able to keep the 24-year old Burnett, who still seems to be an ascending player.

These factors only make the development of the other young safeties on the roster even more important.

With the Packers being a perennial contender as long as Aaron Rodgers is at the top of his game, there is a lot of pressure for this group of safeties to perform well. Will Jennings and McMillian be up to the challenge? Only time will tell, but Morgan Burnett thinks so.

"I feel we have the guys who are going to go out and compete," Burnett said. "We have smart players. It's just an honor for me to be alongside those guys and it's going to be fun.

"We're looking forward to it."

The Packers hope their gamble pays off this time around. All eyes will be on the safety position throughout the entire offseason to see if either of these young players emerge. After all, as Yogi Berra once said...

"You can observe a lot just by watching."



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Photo Credit: Green Bay Press-Gazette / US Presswire