In the 2019 NFL Draft, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst selected two defensive players in the first round. Gutekunst made the selections expecting both players to be key contributors for the future of the Green Bay Packers defense. The first selection, outside linebacker Rashan Gary, has turned out to be even better than expected. Gary has become the Packers best pass-rushing outside linebacker. Even with being lost to a season-ending knee injury this season, Gary has a very bright future. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about the other first-round selection. Safety Darnell Savage, has struggled mightily and has been a massive disappointment for the Green Bay Packers.
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Darnell Savage and His Poor Play Forcing the Green Bay Packers Hand
After selecting Rashan Gary with the 12th overall pick, Gutekunst wasn’t done trying to solidify the Green Bay Packers defense. He moved up to the 21st pick to select Maryland safety, Darnell Savage.
Leading up to the draft, Savage quickly moved up on many teams’ draft boards. His speed, and ability to make plays, made him a prime target for teams in need of safety help. He possessed the speed and play-making ability to become a playmaking safety in the NFL. Those attributes drew the attention of Gutekunst and the Packers.
Prior to Darnell Savage’s selection, the Packers had been without a playmaking safety since Darren Sharper. Gutekunst and the Packers envisioned Savage to be the same type of player. With his speed, and ability to line up as a cornerback, many thought Savage would be an even better player than Sharper.
However, Savage hasn’t come close to matching those expectations. Excluding his 2020 season, Savage has been a massive disappointment. His play has slipped so badly, it might force Gutekunst to look at replacements this off-season.
Savage’s 2020 Season Turns Out to be a Mirage
Like any rookie, Darnell Savage suffered some bumps in his first season as a pro. But even with some bumps, he still had a productive rookie campaign.
That season, Savage posted 42 total tackles, one sack, 5 passes defended, two interceptions, and forced two fumbles. The small glimpse at his ability to create turnovers, the two interceptions, and two forced fumbles, gave the Packers hope about what he could do as he developed.
In his second season, Savage was given some extra help. Head coach Matt LaFleur hired Jerry Gray as the Packers new defensive backs coach. Not only was Gray a standout NFL player, but he also brought along a strong resume as an NFL defensive backs coach. Gray’s ability as a defensive backs coach was expected to help with the development of Savage.
Pairing Darnell Savage with Jerry Gray paid immediate dividends. In his first year under Gray, Savage had what turned out to be a career season. He chalked up 56 total tackles, one sack, 12 passes defended, one fumble recovery, and four interceptions. All of those numbers are career bests (so far) for Savage.
Unfortunately, since that career season, Savage’s numbers have decreased. But it isn’t just his numbers that have dropped, so has his overall play. Even with having the luxury of working with Gary, Savage’s play had become so bad he had become the weak link of the Packers secondary.
Even with still having blazing speed, it hasn’t been enough to cover up for Savage’s poor play. Along with not making the plays that he did in 2020, his lack of ability to make tackles had made him one of the worst tackling safeties in the NFL.
Lost to Injury
When starting boundary cornerback Eric Stokes was lost to a season-ending injury, it forced slot cornerback Rasul Douglas to move to the outside. With the Packers in need of a slot cornerback, defensive coordinator Joe Barry moved Savage to the slot. Barry was hoping the change would help Savage find himself and get the most out of his ability.
But the change wasn’t enough. Savage still continued his poor play until an injury against the Philadelphia Eagles forced him out of action. Even before the injury, many believed the Packers needed to look for alternatives to Savage.
But moving away from Savage won’t be easy. This past spring, Gutekunst and the Packers picked up Savage’s fifth-year option on his rookie contract. By picking up the option, the Packers are on the hook for paying Savage close to 8 million dollars in 2023.
At this point, with Savage playing so badly, the Packers might need to try to move him. It won’t be easy. If they have any chance of moving him, the Packers might have to eat a big chunk of his contract. For a team that is so cap-strapped as the Packers are, that won’t be an easy thing to swallow.
To make things even worse is that fellow safety Adrian Amos is in the last year of his contract. While Amos has also struggled this season, he still brings a strong veteran presence to the back end of the Green Bay Packers defense. Gutekunst and vice president Russ Ball have put the Packers in a very difficult situation.
In-House Replacements for Savage
If by some chance Gutekunst and Ball can figure out a way to keep Amos, and they do move Savage, they will still need to figure out a way to replace Savage as a starting safety. Because the Packers are in “salary cap hell”, the options will be limited.
Rudy Ford, who was picked up on waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars prior to the season, is the most logical option. When Savage was moved to the slot, it was Ford who replaced him. Ford has been an upgrade from Savage. He is a better tackler and even has made some plays. However, similar to Amos, Ford will be a free agent after the season. The one bright spot for that is it is doubtful that Ford will get a big money deal on the free agent market.
There is another in-house candidate to replace Darnell Savage, one that makes sense. Rasul Douglas signed a three-year contract this off-season, locking him up through 2024. Douglas turned out to be a major pick-up for the Packers in 2021, which led to his big off-season contract. He started out as the Packers starting slot cornerback this season, a position that doesn’t fit his skills. But even with moving back outside, he has struggled.
Douglas does have the skills to make the transition to safety. He doesn’t have blazing speed like Savage, but he is a better tackler, has the ability to create turnovers, and most importantly, he is already under contract.
Looking For Help in the NFL Draft
Of course, Gutekunst could look for Savage’s replacement through the draft. The Packers are expected to have a high draft choice, which could give them the ability to grab one of the best safeties. Alabama’s Brian Branch and Boise State’s JL Skinner could be targeted.
But the Packers have massive holes all around their roster, which might push safety down the list. They need to address tight end, wide receiver, and outside linebacker as well. Gutekunst might not have the luxury of selecting a safety that high. By missing on Savage, and picking up his fifth-year option, Gutekunst has put the Packers in a difficult situation. Finding an answer won’t be an easy task.