On a day when Mike McCarthy shot down recent offseason speculation that the Green Bay Packers' underachieving defense would be getting lighter up front, the head coach let on to some significant changes potentially in the works.
One of those could be turning to Micah Hyde, a budding young cornerback, at safety next season with the position in need of an upgrade.
"Micah's, to me, a multiple-position player," McCarthy said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on Friday. "I'd like to see Micah compete to play all three downs on defense. So, if there's a personnel group that he has to play safety, yeah, that's an option.
"He's also played nickel, he's played dime, he's played corner. He's definitely someone that I think has earned the opportunity to compete to be on the field all three downs."
Hyde, a fifth-round draft pick last year, has been compared to Charles Woodson, the former Packers playmaker who made the conversion from cornerback to safety later in his career. Hyde primarily worked in the slot as Green Bay's third cornerback and started three games as a rookie, finishing with 54 tackles, four pass breakups, a sack and a forced fumble.
By comparison, M.D. Jennings, who started the majority of games alongside top safety Morgan Burnett, produced 79 tackles, two pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery.
None of Green Bay's safeties had an interception.
"Morgan was very productive as far as tackles (106, ranking second on the team), but, yeah, we want more plays made by our safeties. I think that's important," McCarthy said. "We need to go back, which we have, and look at exactly how we're utilizing everybody."
McCarthy made a strong statement Friday about what's in store for the defense, which ranked 25th overall in the league last season but still will have Dom Capers as its coordinator.
Injuries certainly were a culprit, especially losing All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews to a thumb injury at two different points in the season. Yet, McCarthy, in retrospect, believes the Packers didn't get the most out of the players they had available.
"The things we're going to focus on (on) defense and we'll go through this in more detail when the players get back in April (for the start of the offseason program), but we've got to do a better job of utilizing our personnel," McCarthy said. "We've had a situation with our defense that there's a lot of change, we had a lot of moving parts, and we've got to do a better job of planning for that, training that way starting in April.
"We have a lot of creativity in our defense, a lot of scheme, but the reality is we didn't get to a lot of it this past year. We're taking too much home with us after we're playing games. At the end of the day, the coaches are responsible for building a plan to put players in a position to be successful, and we've got to make sure that we are emptying our guns each and every week, and that'll be a focus of ours on defense. And, by doing that, I think we can do a little better job of giving players more than one role, utilizing more players in the flow."
McCarthy singled out defensive end Datone Jones as a player who needs to be on the field more.
Jones, the team's first-round draft pick last spring, played sparingly on defense for much of the season. Though hampered at the outset after suffering a severe ankle injury during the preseason, Jones appeared in every game but didn't make one start and finished the season with all of 19 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks.
"At the end of the day, Datone Jones needs to be on the field and being utilized," McCarthy said.
"(He's) a very talented young man," the coach added. "His injury (in) training camp set him back. There's a number of packages that he was a big part of, a primary part of, and frankly, we really didn't get to a lot of 'em just because of the way the season went with our injuries. I'm looking forward to getting him back in the offseason. I feel strongly Datone will be one of those second-year players that takes a huge jump, and that'll be my expectations for him."
Jones just might wind up having to become the linchpin of Green Bay's defensive line.
All three starting linemen in the 3-4 scheme McCarthy and Capers plan to retain are due to become unrestricted free agents. Speculation is former first-round selection B.J. Raji and 34-year-old Ryan Pickett won't be coming back, while the return of Johnny Jolly, who turned 31 on Friday and missed the last three games with a neck injury, is uncertain.
However, if McCarthy is to be taken at his word, the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Jones isn't the epitome of what the Packers are seeking for their linemen from a size standpoint if an overhaul comes to pass. Jolly, Pickett and Raji all weighed at least 325 pounds last season.
"I've never been part of a conversation that you want your D-linemen to be smaller, so that's not accurate," said McCarthy, refuting a national report that indicated otherwise. "We want to continue our process, as far as evaluating D-linemen. We will be a little different on defense as far as how we utilize our defensive players, particularly our front players, because we do have a number of players that can play both the rush outside position and maybe make some impact from the inside position.
"But, our evaluation as far as what we're going to do bringing defensive linemen into our program ... if anything, you always want to get bigger, stronger, faster, longer and things like that. We're definitely not going to be smaller."
--Predictably, general manager Ted Thompson didn't divulge anything of substance when his turn to address reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis came up Friday.
Green Bay heads into what has the makings of an eventful three-month stretch of the offseason.
Seventeen of its players are set to become unrestricted free agents March 11.
"In terms of our free agents, it's no different this year than it always is," Thompson said. "There's a few more, but as best we can, we'd like to have our guys back."
The Packers have the financial wherewithal to re-sign players as well as make what, for Thompson, would be an unusual run at top free agents. They project to be more than $30 million under what is being anticipated to be an elevated salary cap of $130 million for 2014.
When pressed on whether he would be in a spending mood in free agency to bolster Green Bay's miserable defense of last season, Thompson responded, "Who knows? I think we have a very solid defense in terms of personnel. Like I said, we like to have our own guys back, and if we can find value in the free-agent market to help us, we'll do that, too. We'll do whatever, as will the 31 other teams. They're all going to go about this the same way."
Of the Green Bay guys headed to free agency, several are prominent, including receiver James Jones, tight end Jermichael Finley, running backs James Starks and John Kuhn, cornerback Sam Shields and the defensive-line trio of B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly.
Shields, the team's top cover man, looms as the biggest priority.
Hammering out a long-term contract with the four-year veteran would be the aim, though Green Bay has the franchise tag at its disposal if a deal isn't consummated by the tag deadline of March 3. The one-year tender for the franchise tag on a cornerback is expected to be about $11 million.
Thompson was typically evasive when asked Friday whether using the franchise tag on Shields was a possibility.
"Obviously, we're never discussing anything like that," he said.
--In one-on-one interviews with select reporters at the combine Friday, head coach Mike McCarthy presented a sunny forecast for a return to football by Finley.
The six-year veteran is determined to play next season after suffering a bruised spinal cord that ended his 2013 season with the Packers in October. Finley subsequently underwent single-fusion surgery on two vertebrae in the spine.
McCarthy indicated that team doctor Pat McKenzie believes Finley may be able to safely return from the injury, which wasn't the case for former Packers Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, who had a similar procedure done in 2011.
What's more, McCarthy is hopeful about re-signing Finley, who has been one of Green Bay's top playmakers when healthy.
"I'm very optimistic Jermichael will be back (playing football), based on my understanding of his situation," McCarthy told the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "I haven't been involved in a conversation where he's been compared to Nick Collins. Trust me, Jermichael's doing everything he can every single day - he loves to train. From my understanding, he's doing very well. I'm hoping to get it worked out and get him back here."
Finley has been rehabbing and catching passes at the Performance Enhancement Professionals training facility in Scottsdale, Ariz. He tweeted Monday that he weighs 260 pounds - up from his playing weight of 247 last season - with 10 percent body fat.
--Also on the rehab front, McCarthy said offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga is "on schedule" as he trains in Florida the early part of the offseason.
Bulaga missed the entire 2013 season because of a torn ACL he sustained a week into training camp.
"The communication with him, he's on time and he's hit his targets," McCarthy said.
With the expectation that Bulaga will be ready to get back on the field by the summer, still to be determined is what position he will man going into next season.
His injury opened the door for rookie David Bakhtiari to start at left tackle, and the fourth-round draft pick showed well.
That could mean a return to right tackle for Bulaga, where he started his first three years in the league before being moved to the left side last offseason. Don Barclay was the starting right tackle last season.
"As I told Bryan when he left in the (season-ending) exit interview (in January), I will be in touch with him to let him know what our plan is, whether it's the left side or the right side," McCarthy said.
McCarthy added the decision wouldn't come to light until he and his assistants on offense wrap up their film review of last season after they return from the combine.
--While Thompson wasn't in any mood Friday to discuss his draft strategy and the team's needs, McCarthy revealed one request.
"I think we definitely need four (quarterbacks), so I'm hopeful that we can get a young guy in the draft," McCarthy said.
Coming off a season in which they scrambled to put a capable quarterback on the field after losing Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone for seven games, the Packers will be addressing the situation with their backups.
Rodgers and Scott Tolzien, one of four players to make a start at quarterback for Green Bay last season, are the only players at the position under contract.
Matt Flynn, who re-signed with the Packers after Rodgers went out in November and helped get them in position to win the NFC North with an 8-7-1 record, will be an unrestricted free agent.
"We've always taken the approach, and that'll hold true again this year, we'd like to sign our own guys back, and Matt's definitely part of that conversation," McCarthy said. "Matt is obviously a good fit for our program. I thought he definitely gave us a shot in the arm when we needed it. But, free agency is upon us, we'll see what happens."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Packers signed running back Michael Hill and re-signed safety Chris Banjo.
Hill, a 5-foot-10, 210-pound second-year player out of Missouri Western State, spent time on Green Bay's practice squad and active roster in 2013, appearing in two games for the Packers. He was signed by Tampa Bay from Green Bay's practice squad on Nov. 13 and went on to play in six games for the Buccaneers. Hill rushed for 23 yards on nine carries and caught two passes for 23 yards for Tampa Bay.
Banjo appeared in all 16 games with one start in 2013. He posted 15 tackles and a pass defensed, in addition to ranking second on the club with 10 coverage tackles on special teams. He was scheduled to become an exclusive-rights free agent March 11.
Players expected to be unrestricted in March
--RB Kahlil Bell
--C Evan Dietrich-Smith
--TE Jermichael Finley
--QB Matt Flynn
--LB Robert Francois
--DT Johnny Jolly
--WR James Jones
--FB John Kuhn
--DE/OLB Mike Neal
--OT Marshall Newhouse
--DT Ryan Pickett
--TE Andrew Quarless
--DT B.J. Raji
--CB Sam Shields
--RB James Starks
--QB Seneca Wallace
--DE C.J. Wilson
SAFETY: After moving on without veteran leader Charles Woodson and giving Morgan Burnett a lucrative contract extension, the Packers watched their safeties fail to create one turnover last season.
TIGHT END: Jermichael Finley vows to play again after undergoing surgery in November for an injury to his spine. Odds are long for that happening, especially with Green Bay.
DEFENSIVE END: The starting trio of B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly is headed to free agency. Not far-fetched the Packers carry on without all of them.
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