Morgan Burnett's departure opens door for Josh Jones in Packers' D

Josh Jones didn't start many games last season for the Packers but got plenty of playing time as a rookie. Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers didn't necessarily draft Josh Jones last year to replace Micah Hyde.

They picked him to eventually take over for Morgan Burnett.

That time has arrived.

Burnett, a mainstay on the Packers defense -- when healthy -- since 2010, signed a three-year, $14.5 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Tuesday.

He's the second Packers safety to leave via free agency in as many offseasons. Last March, they let Hyde leave for the Buffalo Bills and a five-year, $30.5 million deal. Then Packers-GM Ted Thompson and contract negotiator Russ Ball never even made an attempt to re-sign the versatile Hyde, who made his first Pro Bowl last season.

Jones, the 61st overall pick in the 2017 draft, played 731 snaps -- second to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix among Packers safeties and six more than Burnett -- last season in what can only be described as an up-and-down rookie year. In preseason practices, Jones looked like someone who would be around the ball more often than not. Yet despite playing all 16 games, including seven starts, he had only one turnover play (an interception at Cleveland of new teammate DeShone Kizer). He also had two sacks and seven pass breakups.

Perhaps more memorable was a last-season breakdown at Carolina that cost the Packers a touchdown in a loss that eliminated them from playoff consideration. Jones dropped coverage on Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who ended up scoring a 30-yard touchdown.

"You want him to make that play, and it's a critical play in that situation," then-Packers safeties coach Darren Perry said after that game. "Those are some of the growing pains that you go through when you have young guys out there and so forth. Josh has worked his butt off and he spends a great deal of time in the meeting rooms and going over things and so forth. Sometimes it just doesn't, you know, translate.

"He doesn't want to make those mistakes, but as a rookie player out there sometimes you get off your technique, and that's probably more than anything else with a veteran quarterback, you've really got to hone in, particularly when you're playing an experienced guy like that."

Perry did not return to the coaching staff after he was passed over for defensive coordinator, so Jones' second season will fall under new secondary coach Jason Simmons. Simmons and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine also will no doubt take a long look at the hard-hitting Kentrell Brice, who finished last season on injured reserve because of an ankle injury, along with Marwin Evans and Jermaine Whitehead.

Still, Burnett's versatility will make him difficult to replace with just one player. Burnett played multiple roles -- safety, inside linebacker and defensive signal-caller. Pettine has not yet been asked whether he will use the "nitro" package, which featured a safety (usually Burnett but occasionally Jones) as an inside linebacker.

"You can't have enough multi-positional players," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said before free agency. "Morgan definitely is one of our best at that. So to be able to play multiple positions over the course of a year, his communication you could see the level of efficiency when he's in there as opposed to when he wasn't in there.

"So those two components right there: communication and efficiency and ability to play multiple positions; you always want to have schematic challenges from bad matchups. When you have multi-positional players, it obviously eliminates the opportunity to potentially be in a bad matchup."