The safety position will be one of the primary-need areas for Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson to concentrate his attention on as the NFL Scouting Combine kicks off this week.
The Packers have obvious holes at other positions, namely at inside linebacker, tight end and along the defensive line. And Thompson is never one to bypass value in favor of strictly need.
Yet no position on the Packers roster requires a talent infusion quite like safety, especially after a 2013 season that saw Morgan Burnett regress, M.D. Jennings thoroughly disappoint and Jerron McMillian fizzle out of Green Bay.
The Packers gave Burnett a $24 million extension last July, thinking the 25-year-old safety was well on his way to becoming the next playmaker at the back end of a Green Bay defense. Such a vision never materialized in 2013, as Burnett missed the first three games and then provided zero turnover plays (interceptions or forced fumbles) over the final 14 games, including playoffs.
Jennings and McMillian entered the season as ascending players, each with expectations to start alongside Burnett. Jennings went on to start all 17 games, but he became a serious liability, both in coverage (five touchdowns, 148.8 passer rating allowed) and against the run (nine missed tackles). McMillian didn't even last a full season, as he made too many mistakes and was eventually released in early December.
Behind those three, the Packers asked undrafted free agents in Chris Banjo and Sean Richardson to play meaningful snaps. Both are intriguing players, but neither appears to have a ceiling above backup quality.
The Packers remain financially tied to Burnett, who has the talent to be an above-average starter. But there's little chance Dom Capers' defense can once again start Jennings and expect a defense that crumbled down the stretch to be any better in 2014.
Last season, Green Bay's full group of safeties allowed 13 touchdowns and a passer rating of 135.9, with zero interceptions and 32 missed tackles.
The Packers also produced just 22 takeaways and allowed a total opposing passer rating of 95.9, both five-year lows under Capers.
Upgrades are needed to turn around those numbers.
Thompson has the cash available to sign a veteran safety in free agency. But as is the case most years in Green Bay, the Packers remain committed to using a draft-and-develop approach to building a roster. The most likely additions will come from May's draft, which is heavy at the top for safeties.
The Packers are slotted in at No. 21 overall in the first round, giving Thompson a real chance to use his first-round pick on a safety for the first time since arriving in Green Bay in 2005. In the past, he's used a second-rounder on Nick Collins (2006) and a third-rounder on Burnett (2010). But a safety has never been selected by Thompson within the first 32 picks.
He might need to change that history to find immediate impact at safety. The draft's top two players, Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor, are both likely first-rounders.
Thompson will get a chance to see both players up close and personal in Indianapolis. He'll also be provided the opportunity to further evaluate the position beyond the top two, which will help to gauge whether or not the Packers can find a potential starter outside the first round.
NFL Combine Safety Big Board
|2.||Ha Ha Clinton-Dix||Alabama||6'0"||210|
|3.||Jimmie Ward||Northern Illinois||5'10"||191|
|4.||Deone Bucannon||Washington State||6'1"||216|
|5.||Terrence Brooks||Florida State||5'11"||197|
*Packers pick at No. 21 overall
Prospects to Watch
Calvin Pryor, Louisville
Maybe the draft's biggest hitter, Pryor brings toughness, physicality and a hint of violence. His game almost mirrors that of former Indianapolis Colts safety Bob Sanders, except Pryor is bigger and doesn't have the injury history.
An in-depth profile of Pryor and his draft stock can be found here.
He can cement his first-round status by running well at the combine.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
He's in the running to be the first safety selected. While not the same physical enforcer, Clinton-Dix is a better athlete with better pure instincts than Pryor. His best fit will likely be in a system that allows him to roam the back end while also matching up one-on-one with tight ends and third and fourth receivers.
Former NFL safety Matt Bowen broke down his game here.
A strong display in Indianapolis will ensure he's a top-32 pick.
Deone Bucannon, Washington State
He's well-built at 6'1" and 216 pounds, with long arms and a sometimes-nasty disposition. Experience isn't an issue, as he started all four years in the Pac-12. Bucannon will tackle and make plays on the ball (six interceptions in 2013), but he's only average as a pure cover safety.
Teams will want to see his movement skills at the combine.
Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
Size remains an issue at 5'10" and 191 pounds, but Ward can play the deep half as well as any safety in this class. He flew around at the Senior Bowl, confirming the coverage skills that many saw during his three years of starting in the MAC. In a best-case scenario, Ward becomes a poor man's Earl Thomas.
He could really improve his stock with a strong showing in Indianapolis.
Craig Loston, LSU
He possesses a solid frame at 6'0" and 214 pounds. LSU moved him around and asked him to both support the run and defend the deep half, but his frame and athleticism suggest he'll be best as a strong safety playing in the box.
He could shoot up boards by posting a fast time in the 40-yard dash.
Terrence Brooks, Florida State
A rangy, athletic free safety prospect, Brooks started his career as a corner but eventually transitioned to the back end. He started two years, including last season's national championship campaign. While not the world's greatest tackler, he'll impress teams with his sideline-to-sideline ability.
Teams will want to know why he wasn't more productive making plays on the football.