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Who Must Step Up in 2012: Morgan Burnett

Profiling players whom the Packers need a big year from in 2012, starting with their third-year free safety.

In Week 3 last season, Chicago Bears WR Roy Williams beat Tramon Williams on a double move. The Packers' cornerback played the comeback when the WR stutter-stepped, the WR slipped by him and ran straight down the sideline. QB Jay Cutler saw the opening and flung a deep ball for Roy Williams, but Morgan Burnett--who was the single high safety in that coverage--recognized what was happening, ran over and leaped high in the air to pick off Cutler.

That play was a rare highlight for Burnett in a season that saw the Packers give up the most passing yards in football, at a hair under 300 per game. He posted 107 tackles, eleven passes defensed and three interceptions, but the Packers also allowed more pass plays of 20+ yards (71) than anyone except New England. Burnett's ability to wrap up the ballcarrier was hindered by a club on his hand, broken just before Week 6, and it rendered him unable to intercept the ball. If he wasn't a weak link in the secondary, it's only because Williams, Sam Shields and fellow safety Charlie Peprah were equally subpar.

With Collins no longer a Packer, Burnett will be expected to replace him as the deep center-field safety and as a leader in the secondary. Burnett posted a 4.42 40-yard dash in his pro day at Georgia Tech, and was regarded as an instinctive, ball-hawking safety coming into the NFL. Big, strong and willing to hit people, Burnett could be the Packers' next great safety in the Collins/Darren Sharper/LeRoy Butler mold. For the sake of the Packers' pass defense, though, he has to put it all together sooner rather than later.

Nick Collins wasn't a great tackler before his neck injury, and he didn't have exceptional hands (he made plenty of interceptions, but seemed to drop almost as many). He had all the physical tools to be a top safety, but the most important was his unbelievable range and anticipation. One needs only to think back to Super Bowl XLV and Collins' coming over from center field to gobble up an errant Ben Roethlisberger pass for an example. He was a great communicator as well, keeping everybody in the secondary on the same page.

Entering his third season as a Packer, Burnett should be healthy and ready to go in training camp. It's easy to forget that Collins didn't put it all together until his fourth year in the league. With a likely rookie starter at strong safety in Jerron McMillian and a pair of suddenly unreliable cornerbacks in Williams and Shields, the Packers can ill afford for Burnett to take another year to get used to the NFL.

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