GREEN BAY, Wis. -- To no one's surprise, all four of the high-priced free agents the Green Bay Packers signed in the offseason -- edge rushers Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith, safety Adrian Amos and right guard Billy Turner -- lined up among the starters when the team opened the doors to its OTA practice this week.
But only one rookie took a spot among the 22 starters on offense and defense.
It wasn't top overall pick Rashan Gary, the No. 12 selection in the draft.
Rather, it was the 21st pick, safety Darnell Savage Jr., who lined up next to Amos in the secondary.
Perhaps the absence of third-year safety Josh Jones, who left the offseason program recently because he wants out of Green Bay, gave Savage that spot sooner rather than later. But the minute general manager Brian Gutekunst traded up from No. 30 on draft night to take the safety from Maryland, it cemented a revamped safety position in coordinator Mike Pettine's defense.
Gutekunst, Pettine and secondary coach Jason Simmons have set up a plan: interchange Amos, the experienced and savvy pro, with the highly athletic Savage at the two spots in the middle of the secondary.
"If you had to say, Adrian would probably lean towards being a strong safety and Darnell obviously leaning towards free," Pettine said this week in his first comments since free agency and the draft. "But they're interchangeable, and that's something that I've always liked in the system that teams can’t identify, that, 'Hey, when the strong is here, it means this. And when the free is here, it means that.' Or whether it's a certain play, and they can do each other's job. You want them to major in what they're best at, but I think both of them can do it all."
That's a major change from last season, when Pettine searched up and down the roster for competent play at that position.
Former undrafted free agent Kentrell Brice surprisingly won a starting job in training camp over Jones, which began his season of discontent. The other starter, former first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, was so wildly inconsistent that Gutekunst saw enough and traded him to Washington at midseason for a fourth-round pick.
The trade still didn't immediately get Jones on the field. Instead, Pettine and former defensive passing-game coordinator Joe Whitt moved veteran cornerback Tramon Williams to safety.
With the addition of Amos in March, Pettine declared that Williams would return to cornerback. But under Simmons, the corners and safeties are now with a single position coach, which has allowed the 36-year-old Williams to work closely with and observe the newcomers.
"When you have a great secondary, you have a lot of guys who understand the game," Williams said. "That's one thing I studied about secondaries. What makes these guys great? What makes these guys so tough to throw on? What makes these guys this and that? I can remember one. We were all here when I was younger, with me, Charles [Woodson], Al [Harris] and everybody. Man, everybody understood the game. It just makes it easier to play when you got guys who understand the game. You can do things that you're not supposed to do. You can make plays."
Williams saw that capability immediately in Savage.
"Even before we stepped on the field, I recognized how smart the kid was," Williams said. "Most rookies, you don't see that right away."
Much has already been written about Savage's 4.36-second 40-yard dash speed.
The same goes for the addition of Amos, who had a pair of interceptions last season as part of the Bears' highly ranked defense.
But now that they have lined up on the field together, the Packers hope the sum might be even greater than the two parts.
"You don't have a guy that has to carry another guy," Simmons said. "Individually they both can consume the defense and digest it and understand and have the call command to be able to command the whole back end."
For his part, Savage probably couldn't have a better person to learn from in Amos, who formed a successful pairing in Chicago with the playmaking Eddie Jackson.
"It means the world to have a guy that you can go to and ask him questions," Savage said of Amos, who's entering his fifth NFL season, during rookie camp earlier this month. "He's been there, he’s played at the highest level, he's seen it all. Just being able to have a guy in your corner that you can talk to, ask questions. It's a blessing, honestly."
As for Amos, it can't hurt having someone with off-the-charts athleticism next to him.
"I don't think it's one thing that either one of us really can't do, but watching some college tape, obviously, he plays very rangy in the back end and things like that," Amos said. "I won't just say one way or another. I feel like both of us can play both things, so I feel like we can complement each other by both being good at playing both things. Playing down over the tackle and on the back end, showing range and things like that."