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Breaking Down Morgan Burnett's Impact in Green Bay Packers' Defense

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Breaking Down Morgan Burnett's Impact in Green Bay Packers' Defense
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Reliable. Stability. Leadership. 

These are the words that best describe safety Morgan Burnett's impact on the defense of the Green Bay Packers, both now and in the future. 

The Packers smartly ensured Burnett would be a part of that future this week. According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, the two sides agreed to a four-year, $24.5 million extension that will keep Burnett in Green Bay through the 2017 season. 

Before the deal, the 24-year-old Burnett was scheduled to enter the final year of his rookie contract. The Packers now have an important piece of the defensive side locked up for the foreseeable future. 

Through three NFL seasons, Burnett has been one of the team's most reliable defenders. 

After missing 12 games with a torn ACL during his rookie season, the former third-round pick in 2010 has gone on to start every game for the Packers in both 2011 and 2012. Including playoffs, Burnett has started 35 straight contests. 

Not only has Burnett been reliable in terms of being on the field, but the Packers also count on him to play nearly every snap. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Burnett has played 2,426 of a possible 2,444 defensive snaps (99.3 percent) for Green Bay over the last two seasons. In each year, he led the Packers defense in total snaps while ranking No. 7 overall among NFL safeties. 

Staying on the field has helped Burnett develop into one of the NFL's most productive safeties in terms of tackles. 

Since 2011, only Antoine Bethea of the Indianapolis Colts has more total tackles among safeties than Burnett's 230. Last season, Burnett led all safeties with 123—a total that also led the Packers defense. 

According to advanced metrics, Burnett has started to make the most of his tackle opportunities. 

Only four safeties had more "stops" than Burnett in 2012, when he finished with 35. Pro Football Focus defines a stop as a tackle that creates an offensive failure. Burnett's 35 was a big improvement over his 17 in 2011 (35th best).

Overall, his run-stop percentage—a measure of the importance and efficiency of Burnett's tackles—was fifth among safeties, per PFF. He also produced a pressure on one of every four times he rushed the passer, the fourth-best mark at the position, and committed the fewest total penalties (two) among the Packers defensive secondary.

For both Burnett and the Packers, stability rings loudly from the new extension. 

While a young, ascending player like Burnett could have played out his rookie deal and potentially cashed in with a bigger deal on the open market next spring, his representation looked into the future and took the stability of a long-term deal now. 

That reality might cost Burnett in total money over the long haul, but he now has a contract that will pay him $8.25 million up front and $15 million over the first two years, per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports. 

And with the Packers looking at so many potential free agents after this season, including B.J. Raji, Sam Shields, James Jones and Jermichael Finley, Burnett could likely see that a contract extension was in his best interest before 2013. The same deal might not be available next spring.

General manager Ted Thompson will now hope that Burnett's deal looks like a relative bargain in a few seasons—much in the same way Jordy Nelson's does now. For that to happen, Burnett will need to increase his number of big plays. 

Since 2011, Burnett has just five interceptions and four forced fumbles. For comparison's sake, former Packers safety Nick Collins produced 17 interceptions and four fumble recoveries over a three-year stretch (2008-10) before a neck injury ended his NFL career. 

In 2012, both of Burnett's interceptions came in one game—although the two picks essentially sealed a Packers win over the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. 

It's worth noting that the turnover light bulb didn't come on for Collins until his fourth NFL season. He tallied just four interceptions over his first three seasons before intercepting seven in his fourth, when he was named a first-time Pro Bowler. Burnett is now entering his fourth year in 2013. 

If the Packers get a similar jump from Burnett this coming season, his extension should be considered well below market value. 

But even if he doesn't make a significant jump in the turnover category in 2013, the Packers will still have enviable stability at one safety position for the next five seasons. By the end of the deal, Burnett will only be 29 years old. 

However, Burnett's most important impact on the Packers defense might actually be in his leadership of the defensive secondary. 

Green Bay has lost Collins and Charles Woodson in consecutive seasons, leaving a void in both leadership and experience at the back end of the secondary. Burnett has already embraced filling the gap. 

USA TODAY Sports

"Coach gave us a speech: it doesn't matter your years, a first-year guy, it can be whoever. Just step up and be a leader," Burnett said, via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "Going into this year, being a leader in that secondary, with my checks and my calls, I want to be loud and decisive."

Only 24, Burnett now makes all the calls and adjustments for the Packers secondary. That's an important role considering Green Bay will start either Jerron McMillian, a fourth-round pick in 2012, or M.D. Jennings, a third-year pro, alongside him at safety. At cornerback, the Packers also have young players in Casey Hayward, Sam Shields and Davon House. 

Green Bay needs a smart, instinctive and experienced player to ensure the right players are in the right place on every down. Given the new contract, the Packers are clearly comfortable handing those full-time responsibilities to Burnett. 

In fact, Burnett's extension proves that the Packers trust the young safety to become a cornerstone of the defense for the next five seasons.

At this point, he should be considered a reliable and ascending leader for an improving unit. The Packers now hope the stability granted by his new deal will help Burnett increase his impact in 2013 and beyond. 

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