GREEN BAY – A few lockers down from Morgan Burnett are M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian. Tramon Williams is in there, too. A little further is the space once occupied by Charles Woodson. Not the most physically imposing of men, Woodson carried heavy weight in that area. If he was there, you knew it. And if he wasn’t, like when he rehabilitated an injured collarbone most of last season, you knew it, too.
The same could be said on the field.
Moved from cornerback to safety in the Green Bay Packers’ base packages his 15th season last year, Woodson managed 1.5 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble to go with five passes defensed in just seven games.
Yet there was something comforting about having him out there, both for the coaching staff and the players around him.
Now, he’s off to Oakland, and the leadership torch passes to a man all of 24 years of age: Morgan Burnett.
"I just feel as a safety, that’s your job description," he said matter of factly. "You have to be a leader on that defense. You have to be a leader in the secondary, so it’s part of your job getting everyone lined up and in the right position."
A 2010 third round pick who general manager Ted Thompson traded up 15 spots to pick out of Georgia Tech, Burnett began his rookie campaign as a starter at safety – only the second Packers rookie to do so since Chuck Cecil in 1988 – and played in four games before injuring a knee and missing the rest of the Super Bowl season. In those four games he made 14 tackles and coming up with one interception.
In 2011 Burnett started all 16 games, making 107 tackles (78 solo), defending 11 passes, coming up with three picks and forcing two fumbles.
Last year he played in all 16 games again, increasing his tackle total (123, 88 solo), and intercepting two passes and defending five others. He once again forced two fumbles.
The resume proves Burnett is now the keeper of the flame, but don’t tell him that.
"I don’t take nothing for granted," he said. "Nothing’s locked down for me. I have to go out and compete every day and that’s what you love about playing this game of football at this level. You’re challenged to compete and go out and perform every day so that’s going to help you get better as a player."
A lot of attention is being paid to the competition between Jennings and McMillian on the other side of him, and the recovery of Sean Richardson (neck) is an interesting story, but Burnett is clearly "The Man" at the safety spot.
He’s pushed himself to improve this offseason, physically and mentally. Whether it’s giving distance running a shot or just getting a firmer grasp of Dom Capers’ defensive concepts, Burnett feels ready to take the next step in his career as an impact player.
"Going into this year, being the leader in that secondary, with my checks and my calls I want to be loud and decisive because in the secondary, as a safety, you’re considered the quarterback of the defense so that’s my job description," he said. "I want to try to do my job to the best of my ability. It doesn’t mean I have to get outside of my element. Just keep doing what I’m doing and try to find a way to take advantage of these practices to get better."
That said, he’s not setting himself up to be a Pro Bowler or, even draw comparisons to any of the game’s elite safeties.
"I don’t really focus in on that," he said. "I just find a way to be accountable because the best opinion is from the guys sitting next to you in your locker room. I just want to find a way not to let my teammates down. They count on me to do my job so I want to do that to the best ability."
And that means not only not worrying about the absence of a man who taught many of the young Packers defensive backs so much, but not worrying about trying to truly replace the impact he made on the team on and off the field.
"I’m not Charles Woodson," Burnett said. "I’m trying to be the best Morgan Burnett that I can be. Charles Woodson was a hall of fame player and I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to play alongside him, but right now I’ve got to come in and be the best Morgan I can be."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.