GREEN BAY – Darren Perry made the prediction after the 2011 season ended. He’d seen Morgan Burnett play in exactly 21 games that mattered – four in 2010 before a torn anterior cruciate in his knee ended his rookie season, and 17 in 2011, many of them having been spent with a bulky club cast protecting a broken right hand.
Nevertheless, having coached seven-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu Pittsburgh and three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins in Green Bay, the Packers safeties coach felt completely confident in what he was about to say.
“You saw flashes of him potentially being a really, really good football player (during the 2011 season). I think the sky’s the limit for him,” Perry said. “He’s coachable, he listens. To me, he’s got athletic ability comparable to Nick. He has good ball skills, and I think the more he learns and the more he understands the system – because really in essence, this was kind of his rookie season – I don’t think he felt truly comfortable.
“Just watching him, I’m real excited about his growth potential. I think he could be one of the top safeties in the league. I really feel strongly about that.”
On Monday, the Packers made a long-term commitment to Burnett, reinforcing their belief in him by signing him to a reported four-year extension worth $24.75 million, including an $8.25 million signing bonus, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The deal will reportedly pay Burnett $15 million over the next two years.
Burnett has yet to make the Pro Bowl, although given the Packers’ history at the position, this could be the year. The team’s three previous high-profile safeties – LeRoy Butler in 1993, Darren Sharper in 2000 and Collins in 2008 – all earned their first Pro Bowl nods in their fourth seasons.
The news broke on the same day that the Buffalo Bills failed to reach a long-term agreement with their franchise-tagged Pro Bowl safety, Jairus Byrd. Byrd wants to be the league’s highest-paid safety but is now set to make a one-year guaranteed salary of $6.9 million under the franchise tag.
If the 24-year-old Burnett becomes the player Perry believes he can be, the Packers got him at a bargain rate. When ex-San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay this offseason, the Buccaneers gave him a five-year, $41.25 million deal that contained $22 million in guarantee money, including a first-year roster bonus of $4.5 million, a fully guaranteed 2014 roster bonus of $3 million, and guaranteed base salaries of $4.5 million this year and $6 million next year.
Seattle Seahawks two-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas still has two years left on his rookie deal as a 2010 first-round pick, but his next deal figures to surpass Goldson’s. In March, Atlanta’s William Moore got a five-year, $29.512 million deal that contained $14 million guaranteed – an $8.25 million signing bonus this year and each Moore's base salaries of $2.25 million this year and $3.5 million next year.
According to NFL Players Association data, Burnett was set to earn a base salary of $1.323 million in 2013. His base salary last year was just $540,000.
Burnett’s agent, Kevin Conner of Universal Sports Management, did not return a message.
The Packers went into the deal with $16.3 million in salary-cap space despite having signed quarterback Aaron Rodgers and outside linebacker Clay Matthews to pricey extensions earlier this offseason. Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports reported last Thursday that the Packers were trying to “hammer out” a deal with Burnett, who was entering the final year of his rookie contract after coming into the league as a third-round pick in 2010 out of Georgia Tech.
Burnett’s rookie season ended after four games with the torn ACL, but he’s started every one of the Packers’ 35 games (including playoffs) since. He registered 112 tackles, one sack and four interceptions and broke up 16 passes in 17 games in 2011, then had 148 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and 15 break-ups last season in 18 games. In fact, Burnett played every one of the Packers’ 1,260 snaps.
With the release of veteran defensive back Charles Woodson in February, the team will be relying heavily on Burnett, whom the coaches believe has matured and grown into a leader on the defense.
“I’m not Charles Woodson. I’m trying to be the best Morgan Burnett that I can be,” Burnett said during organized team activity practices last month. “Charles Woodson was a Hall of Fame player and I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to play alongside him, but right now I have to come in and try to be the best Morgan I can be.
“I just feel as a safety that’s your job description. You have to be a leader on that defense. You have to be a leader in that secondary. It’s your job to get everybody lined up in the right position.”
By taking care of Burnett, the Packers crossed one more name off the list of players they need to re-sign. The team enters the 2013 season with defensive tackle B.J. Raji, cornerback Sam Shields, tight end Jermichael Finley, wide receiver James Jones, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, defensive end Mike Neal and right tackle Marshall Newhouse all entering the final years of their deals.
“I think he’s going to have a heck of a career here, and I’m delighted to be his coach because he does everything you want done,” Perry said last month. “He’s going to do it exactly like you tell him to do it.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.