Morgan Burnett must take next step
GREEN BAY—Morgan Burnett was drafted high, anointed as an immediate starter and then paid handsomely four months ago to be the fourth exceptional safety for the Green Bay Packers in the last two decades.
That hasn’t happened yet for Burnett, and now well into his fourth season there are doubts it ever will.
Burnett certainly isn’t a bad player. He provides a measure of functionality almost equally against both run and pass. He’s a worker bee. His athletic ability and speed are more than adequate. He has ideal size. And he can direct a secondary at a satisfactory level.
Burnett just isn’t an impact player, which is what general manager Ted Thompson was hoping for in 2010 when he traded up to select him in the third round.
“He’s a middle-of-the-road, average NFL starting safety,” an AFC personnel director said last week. “There are no dominant traits. He won’t be a difference-maker, but he isn’t going to hurt you, either.”
Several years ago, STATS created a statistical measure to rate the big-play performance of defensive backs. They combined a player’s interceptions, forced fumbles, passes defensed and sacks, and coined the total as “ballhawks.”
In 2011, when Burnett played 98.5 percent of the Packers’ defensive snaps, he had 14 “ballhawks” to rank tied for 35th among all defensive backs.
Last year, Burnett played 100 percent of the snaps and totaled nine to tie for 77th in “ballhawks.”
Having played in just seven of the 10 games this season but still 77.3 percent of the snaps, Burnett has three “ballhawks” and is tied for 145th. Counting just safeties, he’s tied for 54th.
He has two interceptions in his last 25 games, both on the same Sunday last December against Christian Ponder of the Minnesota Vikings.
Of his four career forced fumbles, the last one came 11 games ago.
In terms of “ballhawks” per snap, Burnett has gone from one every 77.2 in 2011 to one every 120.9 in 2012 to one every 152 this year.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and safeties coach Darren Perry have defended Burnett countless times, citing circumstances and roles, opportunities and good fortune.
Each knows that defensive football, now more than ever, hinges on the ability to take the ball away. And Burnett, in a primary takeaway position, simply hasn’t done it.
The Packers have been down this road three times before during their football renaissance. While Burnett’s fourth season has been filled with mediocrity, that fourth season was the absolute break-out point for three of the half-dozen finest safeties in franchise history: LeRoy Butler, Darren Sharper and Nick Collins.
Butler, a second-round draft choice in 1990, played cornerback for two years before moving to safety. After feeling his way for a year, he made the all-pro team in 1993 with seven interceptions, 24 passes defensed and seven tackles for loss in 18 games.
“I’m telling you, confidence is everything,” Butler once said. “Once you get the confidence I used to have … it didn’t matter what was going on, I could make it work. I felt like nobody could throw on me or could run on me.”
A total team player and encompassing leader, Butler had an amazing knack for knowing precisely when to take a chance. In short, he could pull the trigger.
Sharper was drafted in the second round in 1997. A successful back-up cornerback as a rookie, he moved into the lineup opposite Butler in ‘98.
For two seasons, Sharper was almost a complete liability. Not only didn’t he find the football, he was constantly out of position, missed a ton of tackles and wasn’t playing to his keen intelligence.
In 2000, his fourth season, Sharper became a Pro Bowl starter with an NFL-high nine interceptions, 23 passes defensed (10 more than he had in his first three seasons combined) and a score of punishing hits.
A second-round pick in 2005 and an instant starter, Collins basically never made a big play in his first three years. He did have four interceptions but dropped another eight. With Aaron Rouse waiting in the wings, 2008 was Collins’ last chance to show.
Show Collins did, earning the Pro Bowl start by returning his seven interceptions for 295 yards and three touchdowns. He harnessed his remarkable speed and athleticism, began trusting what he saw and started catching the ball for a change.
The careers of Butler (12 years) and Collins (seven) were cut short by injury, and Sharper was out after 14 seasons.
In all, Butler had 38 picks and 20½ sacks, Sharper is tied for sixth all-time with 63 interceptions (11 returned for touchdowns) and Collins had 21 picks.
Burnett rotated down to the slot, jumped a route and intercepted none other than Peyton Manning. It was his third exhibition game, after which Capers said, “Hopefully, that’s a sign of things to come.”
Three weeks later, Burnett broke on a hitch route run by Buffalo’s Roscoe Parrish from the slot and stole the ball from his clutches.
Of Burnett’s seven interceptions, three others stand out.
He covered a lot of ground in Cover-2 to pick Jay Cutler in September 2011. He dived for Eli Manning’s tipped overthrow in the 2011 playoffs. And last December he showed great burst undercutting a red-zone pass to Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Butler, Sharper and Collins all had to wait for their first big contracts until after they produced.
Despite Burnett’s solid but certainly not exceptional performance in his third year, Thompson had seen enough. The Packers had their share of reservations, but in the end signed Burnett a year before he would have hit the unrestricted free-agent market to a four-year extension worth $24.75 million. The guaranteed portion of the contract was a modest $8.25 million.
Currently, Burnett ranks 12th among safeties in average salary per year at $6.19 million.
Safety isn’t a well-stocked position across the league. Other than Seattle’s Earl Thomas and Kansas City’s Eric Berry, and perhaps San Diego’s Eric Weddle and Cleveland’s T.J. Ward, elite safeties are few and far between.
One NFC personnel director polled his pro staff last week seeking consensus among the nine top safeties in the NFC North Division. The vote went Minnesota’s Harrison Smith first, Detroit’s Louis Delmas second and Burnett third.
M.D. Jennings, the Packers’ other starting safety, finished ninth. He has just one “ballhawk.”
“Burnett is a good football player,” the director said. “He’s not making the plays he used to in terms of interceptions and plays on the ball. Not a big-time hitter.
“Little bit slow to process. This kid had a (low) test score, but he went to Georgia Tech. Maybe that’s what will hold him back from being a Pro Bowl guy, but I think he has all the tools.”
Burnett scored 14 on the Wonderlic intelligence test, and safety is one of the positions where teams would prefer a score of 20 or more. Something of an introvert but approachable and unfailingly polite, Burnett doesn’t wow you in an interview.
Capers was asked if the mental side of the game was a limiting factor for Burnett.
“I don’t, I really don’t,” he replied. “God, this guy doesn’t miss many things. He’s our quarterback. One of the things that was tough was not having him the first three games. It’d be like all of a sudden Aaron Rodgers wasn’t out there.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the guy. You kind of earn that over a period of time.”
Last month, Perry called Burnett the “rock” of the secondary. Both Perry and Capers consistently have commended Burnett for his serious demeanor and commitment.
“I’d stake my reputation on Morgan,” Capers said.
The Wonderlic scores at safety are all over the map. Berry had 26, Sharper 25 and Troy Polamalu 24. On the other hand, Thomas scored 13, Ed Reed 14 and Collins 14 and 10 in two attempts.
“It all has to do with instincts,” one scout said. “Judgment to make a play when you have a chance.”
On Burnett’s seven interceptions, he has returned them for merely 13 yards. He has dropped just two interceptions in his career, which is good in a way but bad that he isn’t in position more often.
Burnett has been penalized just three times in four years and is believed not to have a league fine. It’s indicative of his more conservative style of play.
As a rookie, Burnett could be shy if not timid about entering piles and throwing his body around. Scouts view him today as an adequate hitter and tackler, but you almost never see him delivering shots that would intimidate a receiver.
Capers used Burnett to rush on 17 passes in each of the last two seasons, and his total of six pressures was impressive. But he has just three rushes this year as Capers has turned to rushing Jennings and cornerbacks from the slot a lot more.
Probably better in zone coverage than man, Burnett has been at least partly responsible for gains of 55, 20, 32 and 25 in the last two games. Both Capers and Burnett insist he isn’t pressing to get that first interception, but the big-play allowance was disturbing and cannot continue.
“I still have confidence in myself,” said Burnett. “I was always taught that no matter what no one says you’ve got to believe and have confidence in yourself.”
Burnett won’t be 25 until January. He has the security of a long-term contract, the trust of his coaches and the respect of his teammates.
But something’s holding Burnett back. He should be better than this. Every excuse rings false.
Every defense must have a big-play, hard-hitting, clear-thinking safety. Whatever the time frame, Burnett needs to elevate his game just as Butler, Sharper and Collins did before him.