The Green Bay Packers never regrouped from Nick Collins’ career-threatening neck injury, and they’ll enter training camp trying to solidify that weakness.
The one sure thing is Morgan Burnett, who was productive after finishing second on the team in tackles (107) and turnover-producing plays (seven; three interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries).
The big question is who lines up opposite Burnett. Will Charlie Peprah, with 25 starts over the last two seasons and five interceptions last year, retain his position? Will the momentum gained during the offseason practices carry over for M.D. Jennings? Will fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian do what Collins did back in 2005 by going from FCS star to rookie NFL starter?
The secondary question is whether the winner of the job will be an every-down player. Periodically last season when Capers ran his base 3-4 defense, he’d replace Peprah with Charles Woodson, with Sam Shields taking Woodson’s spot at cornerback. That “corner okie” package might become a staple of the defense against traditional two-receiver sets on running downs, with the Packers going with two true safeties in nickel and dime.
Morgan Burnett (6-1, 209; third year): It’s easy to forget what a strong start to the season Burnett was enjoying before the broken hand in Week 6. He and Clay Matthews helped beat the Saints with the game-ending goal-line stand. In Week 2, he had a sack, forced fumble and interception against Carolina. In Week 3, he had two interceptions at Chicago. Burnett, who is soft-spoken and a bit reserved, needs to take a big step forward as an on-the-field leader.
Charlie Peprah (5-11, 203; seventh year): Peprah established career highs in every category: 14 starts, five interceptions, 96 tackles. However, he allowed 66.7 percent completions, and despite playing near the line of scrimmage more than 50 percent of the time, he had only 10 run stops, which tied for 35th out of 54 safeties measured by ProFootballFocus.com.
M.D. Jennings (6-0, 187; second year): After Nick Collins’ career-threatening neck injury, Jennings became the No. 3 safety but played only 10 snaps. He made his mark with nine tackles on special teams. A three-year starter at Arkansas State, Jennings picked off eight passes. With Peprah sidelined for the offseason practices, Jennings and Burnett formed the No. 1 tandem.
Jerron McMillian (5-11, 203; rookie R-4): Yes, it was Maine, but McMillian proved himself a terrific all-around player as a three-year starter. He had five interceptions as a sophomore and 11.5 tackles for losses as a senior. At his pro day, he ran a 4.35 40 with a 39-inch vertical. He’s got a chance to start or even be a fourth corner in dime.
Anthony Levine (5-11, 199; first year): Will the third time be the charm? An undrafted free agent in 2010, Levine spent most of his two years on the practice squad. He intercepted five passes in 24 starts at Tennessee State and was signed after trying out at the 2010 rookie camp.
Sean Richardson (6-2, 216; UDFA): Big and athletic, Richardson has eye-popping measurables (4.43 40). He was a physical tackler at Vanderbilt, where he was a three-year starter, but his only interception came as a senior. Some teams wanted to sign him as a linebacker, which speaks to his strength as an in-the-box defender. Can he play deep, though?
Micah Pellerin (6-0, 195; UDFA): The Packers coveted Pellerin before the draft but he signed with Indianapolis, only to be released a few weeks later. The Packers claimed him on waivers. A cornerback at Hampton, Pellerin led the FCS ranks in passes defensed with 19 as a senior. His coverage ability at safety, where he’d face tight ends, is a major asset. Don’t be surprised if he pushes for a roster spot.
Total: 7. On 2011 opening roster: 4.
Final prediction (4): Burnett, Peprah, Jennings and McMillian.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.