Training camp is less than two weeks away for the Green Bay Packers. As part of my preview, I will be highlighting all 91 players on the Packers roster as I make my way through each position group, taking a look at what I’ve seen during the offseason programs, where things stand, expectations, and more. I’ll also be making a final roster prediction as well.
To finish up the defensive side of the ball, I arrive at safety, a position group where there is everything from playing time to roster spots up for grabs. The only sure thing we know about this position group is that Darnell Savage is going to be a starter, but other than than, everything else is up in the air.
Rudy Ford, Tarvarius Moore, and Jonathan Owens will all be competing for playing time next to Savage, while Anthony Johnson and Dallin Leavitt are two other players who could earn a roster spot, Johnson as a developmental player and Leavitt as a special teams contributor. Also, not to be forgotten is Innis Gaines, who saw some snaps last season from the slot on defense and on special teams, where he made a few plays. Despite the major question marks at this position, the Packers safety room after several offseason additions is also a crowded one.
"“I like where our safety room is, in terms of the competition right now,” said safeties coach Ryan Downard during OTAs.” There’s an opening there and only one guy in the room who has played a ton of snaps for us. I just addressed the guys yesterday, ‘hey, you have to be pros about this.’ Everyone in this room is trying to get a job right now, so it’s full competition on the practice field, but we also have to have each other’s back. And once we make that decision about who is going, we have to be there to support each other. I’m encouraging the competition, I think it brings out the best. The cream always rises. We are just waiting to see who steps up as we go through practices.”"
Miscommunications, coverage breakdowns and missed tackles were all too common in 2022 for this unit, leading to a number of big plays for the opposing offense. In fact, out of 68 eligible safeties, Darnell Savage ranked 68th in overall PFF grade and Adrian Amos 64th. So although there are unknowns around this year’s group – and some rather large ones – it’s also not as if this group has to be lights out to make a bigger impact. More than anything right now, what the Packers need to find is some stability at this position.
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The one thing we know about the Packers’ safety position, at least for now, is that Darnell Savage will be one of the starters, which Matt LaFleur confirmed earlier this offseason. Savage is coming off a down season in which a number of those aforementioned missed tackles and coverage breakdowns he was responsible for, and that eventually led to him being benched. By Savage’s own admission, at times, he was pressing in an effort to make the splash play, and that resulted in him abandoning his assignment, and often a big play for the offense.
Where Savage did find some success late last season was in the slot; however, that is not where he is going to be playing this season. Instead, he will be back in the traditional safety role. With the re-signing of Rudy Ford and the additions of Jonathan Owens, Tarvarius Moore, and Anthony Johnson, there was a clear emphasis by Brian Gutekunst to add willing tacklers and run defenders to this position. Safeties coach Ryan Downard mentioned that ideally, you want a safety who can be reliable tackling and in coverage, but the Packers may not have someone with that particular skill set. So, in that case, Ford, Moore, Owens, or Johnson – whoever is the other starter – may end up playing on the boundary, as Downward put it, and that means Savage will handle coverage responsibilities in the field.
Rudy Ford was signed just before the regular season in 2022 to primarily help on special teams–which he did as a gunner. However, he also ended up providing stability to the safety position. Although not a flashy player by any means, Ford did what was asked of him, and that led to him being positioned well to make plays on the ball. Despite not seeing significant defensive snaps until the second half of the season, he still came away with three interceptions and a fumble recovery. Ford was also very capable against the run, ranking 19th out of all safeties in PFF’s run-stop rate.
Throughout the offseason programs, Ford was the go-to starter next to Savage, which makes sense given his play in 2022 and the fact that he is the second-most experienced player at this position in the Barry defense.
The Packers signed Tarvarius Moore, a former 2018 third-round pick, during the offseason after he spent his career up until that point with San Francisco. 2020 was the last year that Moore saw significant snaps on defense, playing 541 snaps. He would miss the following year with an Achilles injury and then primarily played special teams in 2022. As already alluded to, Moore is a capable run defender, ranking 29th out of 97 safeties in run defense grade in 2020.
Based on playing time during OTAs and minicamp, if I were building out the safety depth chart, I would guess that Moore is the third option behind Savage and Ford. He saw some snaps with the first- team defense at times and was consistently lining up with the second unit.
Jonathan Owens was one of the best-tackling safeties in football last season, ranking 15th in tackling grade and missing only 11 of his 128 total attempts. However, Owens is also still relatively inexperienced, with 2022 being the first where he saw significant snaps. While PFF grades are not everything by any means, for what it’s worth, Owens ranked 67th out of 68 safeties in overall grade, ahead of only Savage. Where he did struggle was in coverage, allowing almost 16 yards per catch on 23 completions with only three pass breakups on 36 targets. Not only with Owens but how this position group as a whole will perform in coverage is one of the many unknowns.
Landing Anthony Johnson in the seventh round of the draft felt like a steal for many. With the Packers, Johnson has the ability to fill an Adrian Amos-like role with his ability to play downhill and help against the run. Out of 200 safeties, Johnson ranked 26th in run-stop rate, and he also held his own in coverage, allowing 12.4 yards per catch on 19 catches–although he didn’t make many plays on the ball, logging just two interceptions and 17 pass breakups over five seasons at Iowa State.
Again, if I were guessing what the depth chart looks like, I would have Johnson as the fifth option behind the four players already discussed. While he is a draft pick, this is also only his second season playing safety after making the position change in 2022. The first four years were spent at cornerback. So not only is Johnson making the jump from college to the NFL, but he’s still learning a new position. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays a very small role this season, even with the questions at the position, with the Packers giving him the opportunity to develop.
Don’t be mistaken; Dallin Leavitt is on this team to be a locker-room presence, something Aaron Rodgers commended him for on a few occasions last season, and to contribute on special teams. Even with all of the issues at safety in 2022, Leavitt still didn’t see the field on defense. Instead, he finished second on the team in special teams snaps, filling a variety of roles, and tied for third in tackles.
There are six players at this position with a legitimate chance that they could make the team. However, at most, the Packers probably keep just five players on the roster–six safeties is a lot, and there have been several years where they’ve kept only four. Owens and Moore both bring more defensive upside than Leavitt and will have to contribute on special teams, but as of now, I just can’t see the Packers willing to let him go, even if that is the case.
There would have been previous years where Innis Gaines may have been someone projected to earn a roster spot on this team, but this season, the safety room just feels too crowded, making his path to the 53-man difficult. Gaines brings special teams experience, ranking sixth on the team in solo tackles in 2022, and he gives the Packers another slot presence, which, even with the cornerbacks included, is a position where Green Bay needs more depth. The only true slot option at cornerback who could be on the final roster is Keisean Nixon.
Gaines saw some slot snaps late last season and again with the second-team defense during offseason programs in the spring. But, with that said, he very well could enter training camp as the seventh option on the depth chart.
Benny Sapp was signed following the 2023 draft as an undrafted rookie out of Northern Iowa. He is an experienced college player with almost 2,000 total snaps, most of which came as a free safety. He would also line up in the box and in the slot. Sapp was a sound tackler and displayed very good ball skills, totaling nine interceptions in three seasons. By PFF’s grading system, he graded out as a well-rounded defender, consistent against the run, the pass, and as a tackler. His ceiling with Green Bay as a rookie is the practice squad.
Darnell Savage, Rudy Ford, Dallin Leavitt, Tarvarius Moore, and Jonathan Owens
This position is completely up in the air and the most difficult to make a prediction at. Outside of Savage, from a contract standpoint, the Packers are able to move on from any one of these players with little dead cap incurred–so none of them are safe in that regard. What I can say I know is that Ford will be on the team, and I see him starting Week 1, and while I wouldn’t call Leavitt a lock, for the reasons already discussed, I think he makes the team.
Where it gets difficult is with the next two spots because keeping six doesn’t seem feasible with other crowded position groups and is something that the Packers haven’t done since 2016. Ultimatley, I chose Moore because he did see some playing time with the starters during OTAs, and that is really all I have to go off of right now. He was also a solid special team contributor. Owens was a starter last season in Houston and excelled as a tackler, an area where Green Bay needs more reliability. As I alluded to, with this only being Johnson’s second season at the safety position, 2023 is probably going to be a red-shirt type of year for him, with the Packers trying to squeeze him on the practice squad as a developmental player.