Replacing Morgan Burnett a Complicated Task

Ordinarily, Morgan Burnett’s departure wouldn’t be a big deal.

As we explored last month, Burnett is a pretty classic example of a player the Packers almost never pursue for a third contract. He just turned 29, he declined last year, and his contributions to the team are as much intangible as statistical at this point. To that end, the Packers’ defense actually performed slightly better with Burnett off the field in 2017.

But the Packers’ secondary over the past two seasons has been far from ordinary in all the wrong ways. Since 2015, the Packers have put up largely token resistance to opposing passing offenses and in that span, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde, Damarious Randall, and now Burnett have all left via free agency or trade.

Say what you will about quality: the Packers are simply lacking quantity in the back half of their defense.

Hyde and Jones keys to Burnett departure

Burnett’s departure is magnified by two other moves, one which can safely be judged a failure.

Hyde’s move to Buffalo seemed like an overpay for the Bills at the time. After the news broke, we wrote this:

In an ideal world, the Packers would have been able to keep Hyde, but from the Packers perspective, there’s probably not much reason to match Hyde’s deal. The Bills are paying Hyde like a starting caliber safety, and an elite one at that. Hyde is neither of those things. Seeing what Buffalo ponied up, the Packers should feel good about not matching their numbers.

In retrospect, that seems foolish. Hyde’s cap hit never exceeds $6.8 million over the duration of his five year deal in Buffalo. In 2018, that would be the ninth largest hit to the Packers’ cap, a perfectly reasonable number if Hyde maintains the level of play at which he performed last year.

In fairness, Hyde’s play never approached an All-Pro level in Green Bay, not even in 2016, undoubtedly his finest season in Green Bay.

But had the Packers retained Hyde, he would have easily slid into Burnett’s role in back end of the defense. Always a cerebral, assignment-sure player, it’s easy to envision Hyde taking over the communication helmet from Burnett and helping direct the defense.

Hyde, though, is gone, but all hope is not lost.

Though Burnett has been a key player in the Packers’ secondary, his departure was not wholly unanticipated. 2017 second round pick Josh Jones is now the man in the spotlight when it comes to filling Burnett’s shoes.

Jones has extreme athleticism and can be a big hitter. In the right role, he showed that he can contribute in 2017. He all but wrecked the Cincinnati Bengals by himself, racking up a dozen tackles and two sacks playing as a de facto linebacker, a role which Burnett played regularly last season.

But playing in the box wasn’t Burnett’s only responsibility, and it won’t be the only thing Jones is asked to do either. Here lies the main reason for concern: in coverage, Jones was something of a nightmare last season. He’ll need to make major strides to contribute there next season or the Packers may really be in trouble with the loss of Burnett.

To be sure, losing players happens all the time. Even if the Packers had made a serious offer to Burnett (and all reports indicate they didn’t), he may have chosen to leave anyway. The Packers will need Jones and the rest of the young secondary to step up.

Losses in the secondary have plagued the Packers now for several years. With Burnett joining the list, the Packers have to hope the latest part of their plan is better than what they’ve worked on for the last few seasons.