Packers ‘interchangeable’ safeties were on display during third OTA practice

By: Paul Bretl 6/4/24

Whenever GM Brian Gutekunst was asked to describe what he wanted at the safety position this offseason, the one word that continued to pop up was “interchangeable.” 

 “It really helps your defense to be multiple and flexible so teams can’t get a bead on what you’re doing,” Gutekunst said back in February. “So, in a perfect world, quite frankly, between the two safeties and the nickel, those three guys almost need to be interchangeable completely.” 

 Free agent signee Xavier McKinney filled a variety or roles during his time with the New York Giants—playing deep, in the box, and in the slot. Third-round pick Javon Bullard spent ample time in the slot and as the deep safety at Georgia, while the Packers believe that fourth-round pick Evan Williams can fill a similar role as Bullard with his movement skills.

During Tuesday’s third OTA practice that was open to the media, we saw the interchangeability that this trio possesses on display. From play-to-play, McKinney, Bullard, and Williams all filled different roles on the back end of the defense. This included slot and free safety snaps for Bullard, with McKinney and Williams both lining up deep and in the box.

There were also several instances where all three were on the field together, and there was a good amount of post-snap movement as well, with the safeties changing their positioning once the ball was snapped. 

“I like to say this is the best group that I’ve been apart of since I’ve been in the league and that’s from me to whoever the last person is,” said McKinney about the safety room. It don’t matter. I think everybody’s done a great job. 

“I think the talent level in our room is out of this roof. And it’s just going to be fun to play with these guys because everybody is smart. So we all working off of each other and we’re able to build off of each other and compete with each other and make each other better.” 

Adding this level of versatility among multiple players to the safety position generates a layer of unpredictability to the Packers’ defense. Pre-snap, opposing offenses won’t be able to necessarily get a beat on what responsibility each player has or where they might end up as the play unfolds based solely upon who is on the field or where each safety is initially lined up. 

From a game-planning perspective, this feature also opens up the playbook for Jeff Hafely, who has the flexibility to change things up from week-to-week depending on the opponent and what the Packers want to take away. 

Along with the versatility that this unit possesses, and the schematic advantages of that, there is also a fast and physical play-style that the Packers now have in their revamped safety room. This is a ball-hawking group that flies to the football and is more than willing to help in the run game.

“I think we could be really special,” said McKinney of the Packers’ defense. “I think he’s going to allow us to be really aggressive, a defense that can create a lot of turnovers, and just play with our instincts. 

“I think that’s the biggest part is just letting everybody have a personality about themselves, doing it obviously within the defense. Obviously we’re building right now, but I know eventually we’ll get to the point where he’ll give us the keys and let us do our thing, and we’ll just go off of his call, but I think the sky’s the limit for us as a defense.”

Improved play from the Packers’ defense as a whole will have to include a greater playmaking presence on the back-end. Last season, the Packers generated the second-fewest interceptions, ranked 23rd in pass deflections, with opposing quarterbacks averaging the ninth-most yards per pass attempt against them.

At the end of the day, players have to make plays when the opportunity presents itself, but given the versatile safety room that Gutekunst has built coupled with Hafley’s defense, some of the heavy lifting is going to be done pre-snap, helping to keep the quarterback off-balanced and perhaps, to a degree, guessing.

“Speaking to that,” said defensive backs coach Ryan Downard about the versatility at safety, “like Seattle, for example, they had a guy, Earl (Thomas), who was traditionally in the post, and Kam (Chancellor) was in the box, but you go back and watch their point of attacks, Kam’s got some reps in the post, too. So they both could do both things. 

“Again, I just think in terms of preparation, you can’t always say OK this guy’s always going to be the one that’s rolling down into the box and he’s rotating to the post if he’s showing depth. I just think there’s an advantage not only from a game-planning standpoint but then I just think the things you’re able to do with the players – like if you have a guy that can cover and tackle, that’s obviously better than a guy that can just cover or can just tackle. Might be a little greedy on my part, but that’s what we’re striving to get.”