CampTour'12: Morgan Burnett ascending

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- We've discussed the whys and the wherefores surrounding the shift of Charles Woodson's duties in the Green Bay Packers' defense. And already this summer, we've spent some time discussing the domino effect of Woodson's move to a safety/slot cornerback role, noting the Packers are rolling through a number of candidates for Woodson's old job on the outside.

We've been so distracted, however, that we might have missed what the Packers consider the biggest revelation in their secondary during training camp. Third-year safety Morgan Burnett has emerged as a cornerstone of the defense, one who could splash onto the national scene if his development continues at its current pace.

"I think he'll definitely be somebody that they'll be talking about throughout the league," coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday after Burnett had a particularly active practice. "I think he's ready for that type of season."

Cornerback Tramon Williams was more blunt: "I believe personally that he has a rare skill set, and I believe he'll be a Pro Bowler, a multiple Pro Bowler, one day. Might be this year. You never know. The guy has that type of skill set and that type of energy."

The Packers have had high hopes for Burnett since trading up and making him a third-round draft choice in 2010, but a torn ACL scuttled most of his rookie season, and he struggled at times in 2011 while playing with a broken thumb. Regardless, the release of veterans Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah has catapulted Burnett into a cornerstone role.

Tuesday's practice suggested Burnett could live up to that expectation. In the span of a few plays in one drill, Burnett:

  • Tipped away a deep pass down the right sideline from quarterback Aaron Rodgers while defending receiver Jordy Nelson.

  • Aggressively ran at tight end Jermichael Finley on a crossing route, making legal contact as the ball arrived and contributing to an incompletion.

  • Intercepted a Rodgers pass after receiver Donald Driver fell.

At 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds, Burnett has the size to support the run and defend larger receivers or tight ends. The Packers also think he has exceptional ball skills for a safety, and have entrusted to him many of the defensive calls once made by Collins.

"I feel I'm still in a growing process," Burnett said. "I'm always trying to find ways to get better, and right now I still feel I've got room for improvement. Our communication is good, but I can still do better with it."

The Packers appropriately looked outside their incumbent roster to improve their pass defense during the offseason. But they also needed some internal development as well. We haven't yet seen the consistency required from Burnett to declare him the next big-time safety in the NFL, but Tuesday's practice gave us a glimpse of what is possible.

"I personally feel that Morgan has a rare skill set just like Collins had," Williams said before repeating his Pro Bowl prediction. "You can mark it down," Williams said, laughing. "Mark that down."