During the draft at pick No. 14, the Green Bay Packers had versatile Florida State safety Derwin James staring them in the face. General Manager decided to trade down and acquire a 2019 first rounder from New Orleans instead of taking the safety. No one really knows how much interest the Packers had in James, but it does show confidence in the safeties the Packers do have.
With the departure of veteran Morgan Burnett to Pittsburgh in free agency, Green Bay will have to look for a new permanent strong safety for the first time since Burnett was drafted in the third round in 2010. Burnett was a consistent contributor for the Packers defense, but lacked the playmaking ability the Packers desperately need on defense.
He also struggled to stay on the field consistently. Burnett has only played a full 16 games in a season twice in his career and has not done so since 2012. In his five years since, he has missed at least three games three times. So, he was a solid player, but sometimes as they say, the best ability is availability. So they decided to part ways.
Now the Packers need to find somebody to take his place. The favorite right now is 2017 second round pick Josh Jones. As a rookie, Jones struggled under former defensive coordinator Dom Capers. He was put out in space quite a bit, and his play suffered because of it. His best games were while playing in the box. His best game was against Cincinnati, where he showed flashes of brilliance, making 11 tackles and registering a pair of sacks.
It will be interesting to see where Jones lines up this season under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. I imagine he will line up quite a bit like he did against the Bengals this season, so I think he will flourish under the new regime. Unlike Capers, Pettine will put players in a position to be successful and that could help Jones make a big jump in his second year. He is a work in progress in pass coverage, but he did make a big interception of current teammate DeShone Kizer to help Green Bay defeat Cleveland.
Another option for Green Bay at strong safety is Kentrell Brice. The 23-year-old came in as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and looked like he belonged as a rookie. In his first season, Brice registered 26 tackles and a pass deflection. People thought 2017 could be a breakout season for Brice, but he struggled in his sophomore campaign before an ankle injury forced him to be placed on injured reserve in November.
Like Jones, Brice is looking for redemption after a disappointing 2017 season. While he did record his first career interception this past season, his Pro Football Focus rating was a less-than-spectacular 40. The hard-hitting safety often looks for the kill shot, so he’ll need to control it so he does not end up costing the team.
It may be a long-shot, but maybe even second-year safety Marwin Evan could compete for the starting spot. The Wisconsin native signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016, like Brice. After playing sparingly as a rookie, Evans made his mark on special teams in 2017. He played all 16 games, even starting one, registering 24 tackles.
Evans looked great in preseason last year, picking off one pass and breaking up two passes. The former Utah State standout made the Preseason All-PFF team, earning an 89.7 PFF rating last preseason. Unfortunately, that did not carry over to the regular season, as his PFF rating was just 51. I know it was against subpar quarterbacks, but he only allowed a passer rating into his coverage of just 37.5. He will need to perform in the regular season, as he lost snaps to Jermaine Whitehead late in the season last year.
It will be a battle to decide the starting strong safety spot, opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. If Evans makes the team, all three will receive plenty of playing time this season. All three have their strong points, but have limitations. It will be interesting to see how Pettine uses the safeties and who he feels pairs best with Clinton-Dix.——————
Jonathon Zenk is a writer for PackersTalk.com. He is a huge Packers fan, and a graduate of The University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. You can follow Jonathon on Twitter at @jzenk42