Dougherty: Darnell Savage shapes up as a natural for Packers' new 'star' position
GREEN BAY - There’s a reason the Dom Capers defense, and all its offshoots, call slot cornerback the “star” position.
It’s a spot ready-made for talented players because they line up in the middle of the action as cover men, run defenders and blitzers. It’s where Rod Woodson and Charles Woodson had the biggest seasons of their Pro Football Hall of Fame careers.
The star position still exists in today’s NFL in defenses that are rooted in Capers'. That includes Vic Fangio, a Capers’ protégé who’s head coach in Denver. It includes Brandon Staley, a Fangio protégé and new head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers. And it includes Joe Barry, the Green Bay Packers’ new defensive coordinator and a Staley protégé.
And it means that filling the star role is no small matter for the Packers in 2021.
The most obvious candidate is Chandon Sullivan, who manned the slot position last year and recently re-signed with the Packers for one year and $2.1 million.
But Barry has another option in a more talented young defensive back already on his roster. It would require a position change and create a hole in the starting lineup, because it would mean moving Darnell Savage from safety to slot. But if it’s more playmaking the Packers are looking for it might be the way to go.
“They’re not going to move Jaire Alexander in there,” said former Packers safety LeRoy Butler, a two-time finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “He needs to be covering the No. 1 guy. You need to put (Savage) in there, he can do some damage. This guy can be a real force.”
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A high-ranking scout with another NFL team seconded the notion in a recent conversation. The scout studied Savage before the 2019 draft and has seen enough Packers videotape the last two seasons to think the closer Savage plays to the line of scrimmage, the more effective he has been. In the star role Savage would line up essentially as a linebacker whenever the Packers had five defensive backs on the field, which will be a majority of the game.
“He’s a corner-type athlete,” the scout said. “He’s a better athlete — better quickness, better change of direction — than Sullivan is.”
Will the Packers actually make the move? Hard to say. It’s nothing they’d likely reveal this early in the offseason, before the NFL draft, because among other things it could alter their draft priorities. Safety would move up the needs list, though there is a young in-house candidates to replace Savage (Vernon Scott, a seventh-round pick last year). And the need for immediate help at cornerback would move down the list.
Anybody who watched the Packers last season could see Savage’s play picked up as the team started using him closer to the line of scrimmage more as the season went on. He was more dynamic than playing back as a deep post or in Cover-2. The numbers, in fact, are eye-catching: In the final eight games Savage had four interceptions, 12 passes defensed, one sack, two quarterback hits and two tackles for a loss. That’s a much different player than in the season’s first half, when he had no interceptions, two passes defensed, and was shut out in the other categories.
Remember, this is a guy general manager Brian Gutekunst traded two fourth-round draft picks to move up from pick No. 30 to No. 21 in the 2019 draft. He’s a talented athlete whose 4.36-second 40 ranked in the 94th percentile of all defensive backs at the NFL scouting combine since 1999.
Savage’s weakness as a deep safety has been over-aggressive tendencies, biting on play action and tracking deep balls such as the bomb on a 50-50 throw that Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin caught over him in the NFC championship game. That’s far less an issue if Savage is playing mostly in the slot.
As a safety he has been a willing tackler filling the alleys in the run game, which is an important part of the star role. He also looked like a decent blitzer when former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine sent him at the quarterback more as last season went on, including inducing an interception from Tom Brady with a hit in the championship game.
“The closer you get him you see all the great plays,” Butler said. “Pressures, interceptions, hits. He’s faster than everybody, he’s more aggressive. You move him back, you’re almost wasting him.”
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Last year as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Rams, Barry was part of a Staley-led defense that primarily played a five-man front (three defensive linemen, two outside linebackers), one inside linebacker and five defensive backs. The fifth defensive back lined up as a second inside linebacker, or the star position. The Rams used that group for most of the game against the Packers in the playoffs, and at his introductory news conference early last month Barry said he’ll probably have five defensive backs on the field 80 percent of the game.
Barry also strongly suggested he won’t use his best defensive back, Alexander, as the star. The coach characterized the job of lining up against the opponent’s No. 1 receiver, as Alexander has done in the past, as a “different world” than playing the star.
Barry also talked of using more than one player in that role, depending on the defensive package. Last year the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey, who is probably the best cornerback in the game, split time at the star with Troy Hill.
“It changes things up for an offense that they can't just always assume that this jersey number is always going to be the star,” Barry said.
It’s likely Barry’s decision, with input from coach Matt LaFleur, on who will play that role. Those two and Gutekunst no doubt have discussed it, and it’s also a given the GM is looking hard at this year’s draft for someone to fit the star.
But it could be the best option already is on their roster, just playing a different position.