GREEN BAY — May the best man win.
Less than two weeks from the start of training camp, that's still the Green Bay Packers' mentality at safety, where third-year man M.D. Jennings and second-year man Jerron McMillian are set to duel for the starting spot opposite Morgan Burnett.
"I'm just enjoying watching them compete and seeing who steps up and becomes that guy," safeties coach Darren Perry said as the offseason organized team activity practices came to an end. "I think both of them realize this is a great opportunity for them to shine. It's already started, but they know the final analysis is going to come with the pads on and when we get into the games and so forth.
"Not that OTAs and training camp won't be just as important, but obviously it's going to come down to how you conduct yourself and how you perform on the field when we get into those games. So it'll be fun to watch."
It'll also be vital to the defense that one of them makes a significant leap forward and proves worthy of the starting job. A year ago, the Packers cut ties with reliable veteran safety Charlie Peprah on the eve of training camp, even though Peprah had been a solid starter on the 2010 Super Bowl XLV-winning team after Burnett suffered a season-ending knee injury, and in 2011 when three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins suffered what turned out to be a career-ending neck injury.
General manager Ted Thompson and the coaching staff felt that Jennings, who'd made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2011, and McMillian, whom the team had picked in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, could handle being a spot-starter if something happened to Burnett or veteran Charles Woodson, who was converting to safety. As it turned out, Woodson suffered a fractured collarbone on Oct. 21 in St. Louis and wound up missing the remainder of the regular season, forcing Jennings and McMillian into the lineup both in the base defense and in the dime package.
Although Jennings started all nine games Woodson missed, the two young safeties ended up playing almost the same number of snaps. Jennings played 616 snaps in 18 games (including playoffs) and finished with 51 tackles, one interception (which he returned 72 yards for a touchdown) and eight passes broken up. McMillian didn't start a game but played 614 snaps in 18 games and finished with 31 tackles, one interception and 13 pass breakups.
"I think right now there's excellent competition between those two guys," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
The Packers must think one or both of them can handle the job because this year's draft was especially deep at the safety position, and the Packers not only didn't pick one in the first round, they didn't pick one at all
. Although it's conceivable that there were safeties they liked who didn't have high enough draft grades to be selected when they were on the clock, the reality is that if Thompson was genuinely worried about Jennings or McMillian, he'd have maneuvered to add one. And he didn't.
"Those guys, they got better as the year went on. They have another year under their belt, so they understand the defense," Burnett said. "Those guys are athletic and they're very smart players."
In the Packers' scheme, they want their safeties to be interchangeable. But after Woodson, who was playing the strong safety spot, went down, the sturdier 6-foot-1, 209-pound Burnett spent more time at strong safety while the slight Jennings (who is listed at 6-0, 195 pounds). The 5-11, 203-pound McMillian brought a physicality that the defense at times lacked last season, so if he can prove worthy of a starting spot, it would allow Burnett to spend more time in centerfield.
When the season began and Woodson was healthy, it was Jennings who came in at safety in sub packages as Woodson shifted to cover the slot. But after struggling in the opener against San Francisco, Jennings was benched in favor of McMillian, who held the role for the next four weeks also the issue of the two inside spots in the dime defense, where fellow rookie Casey Hayward and McMillian spent time last season. Before Woodson's injury, McMillian came in at safety as Woodson would move to cover the slot.
With Woodson having been released Feb. 15, McMillian worked at both safety and inside in the nickel and dime during OTAs and minicamp while Jennings worked only at safety. The Packers also have Hayward and rookie Micah Hyde who can play inside, and Capers was working various other combinations during the offseason as well.
But the primary job opening is at safety, where barring an unexpected street free-agent signing by the veteran-averse Thompson, it'll be McMillian vs. Jennings starting July 26.
"Right now, they want us to compete and push each other, and make each other better," McMillian said. "If they did bring another safety in or they didn't, you still have to compete with the guys who are here."<div><strong><u>About The 20 Most Important Packers of 2013
series presented by West Bend </u></strong></div><div> The 20 Most Important Packers of 2013
list is not a list of the 20 best players on the team's roster. Rather, the primary factors are the individual player's talent, the inherent importance of the position he plays and the team's depth at the position. Think of it as a list of the 20 players the team can least afford to lose if it wants to return to the Super Bowl. The list was formulated through offseason conversations with players and coaches, as well as statistical reviews and player evaluations by ProFootballFocus.com and others.</div><div> Agree? Disagree? Comment below, or chime in via social media at the ESPNMilwaukee Facebook page
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