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Packers looking for safety help at Senior Bowl

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Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
January 21, 2014

MOBILE, Ala.—The skunk will stink all offseason. Zero interceptions in 17 games. A position designed for playmakers featured none in 2013.

So consider this Take 2. After bypassing safeties through free agency and the NFL draft, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson might be able to patch the leak with someone during Senior Bowl week in Mobile.

The search for a new playmaker is officially underway.

Could that player be a strong safety like Washington State’s Deone Bucannon? Maybe a smaller, missile type in Florida State’s Terrence Brooks? The Packers could add a third Vanderbilt defensive back in Kenny Ladler, a one-man turnover machine in college.

While this year’s draft might lack top talent at safety this side of Alabama junior Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, there are options.

And after whiffing on Jerron McMillian in 2012 and going safety-less in 2013, the Packers need to get it right this time.

“It’s a position that may not be top shelf in terms of first round or maybe even second-round type players,” said former NFL general manager Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl. “But I think there are some prospects in this game that will absolutely show the skill set needed to play at the next level.”

The 6-foot, 200-pound Ladler has started in Vanderbilt’s defense since his freshman year, actually playing alongside Sean Richardson. He made plays—consistently—in the country’s best conference. A first-team all-SEC selection, he was the only FBS player with five forced fumbles and five interceptions.

Last year, cornerback Casey Hayward was lost for all but 87 snaps. The safety Richardson returned by Week 14 as a presence near the line of scrimmage.

Projected as a mid-round pick, Ladler learned the value in gambling from Hayward.

“The thing about him is he takes risks,” Ladler said. “That’s one thing I had to develop later on in my career. It’s experience. The more experience I gained, the more risks I took. That’s one of the things I fed off of with Casey.”

Rogue freelancing is forbidden in Green Bay’s defense where the likes of Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings have remained in “trust your technique” and “trust the defense” autopilot. Then again, the Packers’ safeties didn’t record an interception for the first time since at least the 1950s, while the defense allowed 61 pass plays of 20 yards or more.

Ladler says there are ways for safeties to take a risk without capsizing the defense.

“Use the sideline,” he said. “So if you have a chance to strip the ball while you’re on the sideline and if you miss the tackle, he’ll just go out of bounds. That’s a good chance to do that. Or if you’re coming from the backside and he’s not looking. You just have to catch him by surprise.

“Also, you don’t want to give up the big play on the back end with the pass, so you’ve got to be careful with that.”

This week, scouts will discover if potential second-round talents such as Bucannon sink or swim in space. Three- and four-receiver sets continue to multiply in the NFL—safeties must cover. Bucannon played primarily Cover-4 in college, covered the post route and was used in zone blitzes, but he was not used in man coverage.

So while Bucannon lit up a player during one special teams drill Monday, he’ll need to prove he can match up.

“There’s always obstacles you have to overcome at every level,” said Bucannon, who had six interceptions last fall. “That’s what I’m looking forward to, getting in with those veteran guys and pick their brains and understand what I need to know, what separates them.”

Elsewhere, LSU’s Craig Loston said he’s physical, that he “likes to pound” between the lines. The 5-foot-11, 197-pound Brooks is sneaky physical himself but learned quickly not to take this week lightly. With players in shoulder pads and shorts, he was rendered a speed bump by one running back.

“That’s probably the second time that’s happened to me in my life,” Brooks said. “I can assure with those plays right there, I’m going to keep coming back and competing.”

Maybe the Packers’ best bet is to wade into free agency for a safety for a proven playmaker. As Tramon Williams said, experience matters. But if the Packers do go with youth, they’ll need a player—like Hayward—with a magnetic pull to the football.

Brooks points to a play against Maryland. At the end of the half, he chased down a ball carrier to force a fumble.

“Instincts and being physical,” Brooks said. “Those are the things I harp on. That’s my game. Just be physical with everything that you do.”

So scouts must dig. There isn’t an Eric Berry here. Maybe not even a Kenny Vaccaro, the 15th overall pick last year.

But be it Ladler, Brooks, Loston, the Packers’ answer could be hidden in Mobile this week.

Ladler did speak with a Packers scout this week. Maybe a third Vandy defensive back does the trick.

Said Ladler, “I don’t see why not.”

Either way, it’s a pick, a player Thompson cannot afford to miss again.



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