Despite safety being identified in the media as one of the team's most obvious needs, general manager Ted Thompson bypassed a very good class of players at the position. And he did so several times.
By the end of the draft, his message was heard loud and clear: The Packers are either comfortable with Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings or Thompson has plans to sign a cheap, veteran safety.
Thompson spoke to the first (and more likely) scenario immediately following the draft.
"I’m confident in those young men," Thompson said, when asked about McMillian and Jennings (via Packers.com). "They played well last year."
Head coach Mike McCarthy sang a similar tune post-draft (also via Packers.com).
We’ve got some young guys. I think we can’t forget how many of our young players, our rookies, played on defense last year...Our young players on defense will be a year better. I feel we’ll have an opportunity to definitely improve from what they bring to the table, and that’s no different at the safety position.
McCarthy is right about his young players seeing time last season.
Jennings, a 2011 undrafted free agent out of Arkansas State, played 617 snaps for the Packers defense in 2012 (per Pro Football Focus, subscription required). McMillian, who was drafted in the fourth round out of Maine last April, finished with 614.
Combined, the two totalled 79 tackles, seven passes defended and two interceptions.
The on-field results were varied.
At PFF, Jennings graded out at a minus-1.3 mark, with his biggest negatives coming against the run and rushing the passer. McMillian finished at plus-1.9, with a plus-2.5 rating in pass coverage. Neither graded out in the top 30 at the safety position.
McMillian (5'11", 205 pounds) is the most likely candidate to take a big step in 2012.
A physical striker with an ability to come up and play the run, McMillian struggled as the year progressed in understanding and executing coverages. He allowed 17 catches and a score over the last 10 games of the season, despite the Packers choosing more and more to go to Jennings in passing situations.
There should be hope that in his second year at the NFL level—after transitioning from an FCS school—McMillian will improve enough in the passing game for the Packers to feel more confident in using him as a three-down player.
There were certainly flashes of playmaking ability from McMillian.
Facing the Chicago Bears in Week 2, McMillian perfectly read a seam throw from Jay Cutler and should have had his first career interception. In the fourth quarter, he eventually got it. Sitting on a short out-breaking pattern, McMillian jumped the route and made the athletic interception to help put the Bears away.
Now, Thompson and the Packers are banking on either McMillian or Jennings (or both) taking the necessary steps forward to adequately replace veteran Charles Woodson, who was released following the 2012 season.
Either that, or he could sign a veteran safety, such as Kerry Rhodes, Quintin Mikell or Gerald Sensabaugh. Each would come cheap and provide competition at safety in camp.
But given the comments from both Thompson and McCarthy, the Packers appear comfortable sticking with a mantra that has worked well for them in the past: building from within.
The decision to roll with McMillian and Jennings was a risk—especially with the amount of good safeties in the 2013 class—but considering how many times he did pass over the position, it's clear the hole at safety was much more media-driven than the actual reality in the Packers war room.