The Green Bay Packers struggled against opposing passing attacks mightily last season. The team gave up an NFL record 299.8 passing yards per game last year, and along with the pass rush, proved to be the Achilles heel of an otherwise unstoppable team (15-1 record in 2011).
It was clear that the Packers needed to make some sort of change in their secondary, especially after releasing three time pro bowler Nick Collins due to a devastating neck injury. The Packers wasted little time on that and released safety Charlie Peprah. Despite Peprah’s clear lack of coverage skills and inconsistencies, he did manage to grab five interceptions and record 94 tackles last season.
The challenge for the Packers is now to determine who will start along side Morgan Burnett at safety. It basically comes down to three options.
The current front runner for the starting strong safety spot in the Packers defensive backfield is M. D. Jennings, an undrafted second year pro out of Arkansas State. Jennings played very little in his rookie season, recording only seven tackles on the year. Despite this, the Packers believe that he has been picking up the defense rather quickly and is making great strides. Look for Jennings to get most of the work with the first team unit during training camp as well as the preseason.
Another option that the Packers could go with is Jerron McMillian, their 2012 fourth-round draft pick from Maine. McMillian has been described as an athletic freak, reportedly running a 4.35 40 yard dash at his pro day workout. McMillian has tons of potential to be Green Bay's starting strong safety. However, it is unlikely that he will do so right off the bat. It may even be during this upcoming season that he does so, but it is very likely that the Packers will let him come off the bench and develop behind guys like M.D. Jennings, who they believe are more ready to play right now.
One of the most intriguing options that the Packers could go with is moving Charles Woodson from corner back to safety. This position switch has been discussed ever since Woodson landed in Green Bay. With Woodson excelling at corner back and Nick Collins dominating at safety, there was never any real rush to make the switch. Now of course would seem to be the time when it would happen. Even if Woodson did move to safety, he would likely only play their on roughly 15 percent of snaps, given that is about how often the Packers play in their base defense.
We would still see plenty of Woodson roaming around as a slot-corner, but he would be playing at safety in the main defensive package. With some concerns about depth still lingering among the Packers cornerbacks, I doubt that the coaches would decide to make the permanent switch unless the other options flat out fail. Despite that, it is still likely that Woodson will see time at safety in different packages due to his versatility. He may even play there the same amount as if he were actually the starter.
The last and least likely possibility is the Packers bringing in a free agent. Given Ted Thompson’s track record, I doubt they would sign another free agent. It was rare to even see them bring in a couple of free agents this year, let alone another starter at this point in the offseason.
If they did however, some people have speculated that former New York Jet, Jim Leonhard. The Wisconsin native and former Badger would be an instant fan favorite, but an injury plagued career forced the Jets to cut him, and I do not know if the Packers would be willing to take the risk on Leonhard, especially when they have put a lot of time into their other options.
At this point, the starting strong safety job is up for grabs. It appears that M.D. Jennings is the front-runner and will likely start alongside Morgan Burnett on opening day when the Packers host the San Francisco 49ers.
If I know one thing about this team though, it’s that they will mix up this defense as much as possible to get it to work. It will be interesting to see if the title of starter will even mean anything for this position as they rotate players. No matter what, with an improved pass rush and a healthier Tramon Williams, this pass defense should not be the worst ever this season. That has got to count for something.