For three years running, the Green Bay Packers have struggled trying to put an NFL-quality defensive backfield on the field. In both 2015 and 2017, they expended their top two draft choices in pursuit of the goal, but the results haven’t been satisfactory to date. The team’s pass defense, after being sixth in the league in 2015, went to 31st, and then bounced back a bit, to 21st in 2017.
How to explain such fluctuation? Injuries. Despite having up to 15 DBs (the current total) on the roster, the Packers have been unable to field healthy and quality players. The problem has been masked a bit, as the Packers have routinely sent out injured players rather than placing trust in their lower reserves. In many cases, the injured players performed poorly, making them look less capable than they actually are when healthy.
While injuries can’t be prevented, they can be minimized to some extent. As I’ve indicated, the Packers have been drafting corners and safeties who are too small and too frail. In 2017, they went one for two: Josh Jones has an NFL body, while Kevin King needs to bulk up. The same is true of the terrible choice of Quinten Rollins in 2015.
With this in mind, what should be the top priority in 2018?
Keep Morgan Burnett
Burnett, at age 29, is about to begin his ninth season. After playing every game in 2011 and 2012, he has since played in 13, 15, 11, 15, and 12 games last year. For many players that would be a spotty health record, but for Green Bay that’s makes him an iron man. He’s a solid 6’1” and 209 pounds.
Besides remaining relatively healthy, Morgan is the team’s best tackler – by a wide margin. When able to put in a full season, he recorded 123 tackles in 2012. In just 15 games in 2015, he had 130, leading all defensive backs in the league. He’s a textbook tackler, who goes low, wraps up, and is seldom fooled by a ball carrier’s moves.
He’s not at all flashy, and he can be faulted for failing to make big plays. Nine interceptions (three in the last five years), eight forced fumbles, and eight fumbles recovered is an embarrassing turnover record. Maybe new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine can help him improve on that in 2018.
Burnett is also the brains of the secondary – he’s the guy who wears the helmet with the headset. In a sea of youngsters and undrafted guys, I view Burnett as almost indispensable – at least until Josh Jones gets three years under his belt.
Morgan has played cornerback, slot back, and even linebacker when needed. For a team with such an injury record, this kind of versatility becomes a tremendous asset.
And yet I’m hearing a bunch of people claiming Burnett is expendable.
Burnett is finishing up a four-year deal averaging $6.2 million. Since he’s never been named to the Pro Bowl, he won’t draw a ton of interest in free agency. I would think a three-year contract at around $7 to $8 million per year would be reasonable, and affordable.
Micah Hyde’s performance in Buffalo last year should be a good lesson for Green Bay. Hyde was also stable, smart, and had a great record of staying healthy (one game missed in five years). Changing his role brought out his best qualities, and he became a Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro in his first year away from Green Bay. I figure the mistake of letting Hyde go cost the Packers one or two wins last year.
If I were Mike Pettine, I’d start out by building my defense around a stable, smart, dependable guy like Morgan Burnett.