Darnell Savage probably wasn’t worth a first-round pick. The Green Bay Packers most likely made a mistake by exercising his fifth-year option. While both assessments are true to some extent, it doesn’t matter much at this point. The Packers made those decisions, and what they need now is what Savage has to offer on the field — and Green Bay badly needs him.
On Sunday against the Chicago Bears, he delivered.
With a solid 72.3 PFF grade, Savage was one of the five highest-graded defensive players on the team. One point was positively surprising: PFF gave him an 87.1 tackling grade, the third-highest grade among safeties in the league. That’s an area where Savage has struggled throughout his NFL career.
It’s obviously early, and Chicago’s offense wasn’t good in Week 1, but Savage is the best possible answer for Green Bay’s shortcomings at safety. If he can play again at the level he did when he made the All-Rookie Team in 2019, their safety situation gets much better. Even if there isn’t much depth, Savage would give the Packers a high-end player, while relegating Rudy Ford to a lesser role — one to which he’s better suited.
No. 26 led the team with 10 tackles. Some of them were particularly interesting because of how well he read the offensive action.
For example, Savage was aligned in the slot against zone coverage in the first quarter. He identified that running back D’Onta Foreman, who was on the other side of the formation near Justin Fields, motioned to the left immediately before the snap, which indicated a screen pass. Savage predicted the play and beat the tight end (and old friend) Robert Tonyan to tackle Foreman immediately after the reception for a loss of yards.
On the second play in the video above, the Packers were in a two-high shell, which doesn’t tend to be good against the run. But as soon as Savage read the toss from Fields to running back Khalil Herbert, he accelerated down the field to avoid blocks and tackle him. It was a solid effort and efficient run stop for a defensive back. Especially without Adrian Amos, who is now a New York Jet, Savage needs to be this figure for Green Bay’s defense.
“I thought Sav played a really complete game,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said on Monday. “I thought he was flying around. Obviously, led us in tackles with 10. I was just really happy for him.”
Over the past two seasons, Savage had been a liability for Green Bay’s defense. Amos protected him for most of it. However, Amos didn’t play well either in 2022, and the secondary suffered. So Savage needs to play well under Joe Barry, which he hadn’t done thus far. Now his mindset seems different.
“His practice habits have been outstanding,” LaFleur added. “He’s doing a really good job. He’s off to a really good start. And we anticipate and expect it to keep on going that way.”
Even though both starters were on the team last year, the safety room went through a renovation during the offseason. The team signed free agents Jonathan Owens and Tarvarius Moore (who didn’t make the 53-man roster), drafted Anthony Johnson Jr. in the seventh round, and claimed Zayne Anderson off waivers from the Buffalo Bills. Those are all low-end moves, but they indicate that the Packers were willing to create competition. Savage handled it well. Not only did he secure his starting spot, he also led the room as the most experienced player in the system.
“It’s been cool to see Darnell,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said before the season. “He’s the old man in the room now, he’s the leader in the room, and it’s been neat to see how he’s really embraced that, and I really like the style of play that he’s playing with right now. He was here all offseason, which was great, and he’s had a great camp so far.”
It’s clear how much the Packers trust Savage from the top of the organization. General manager Brian Gutekunst mentioned in January he expected Savage to have the best season of his career, and he backed it up by exercising the fifth-year option. With that move, Green Bay secured Savage for 2023 with a guaranteed $ 7.9 million, one-year contract.
The long-term outlook of Green Bay’s safety room is still cloudy. But if Darnell Savage can get back on track, it would be a huge first step for the unit and make a big impact on the entire defense. Greater challenges ahead will test this theory.