This is the ninth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.
TODAY’S POSITION: CORNERBACKS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 9
Projected starters: Tramon Williams (eighth season), Sam Shields (fourth season)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Casey Hayward, *Davon House, *Micah Hyde, *Jarrett Bush, Loyce Means, Brandon Smith, James Nixon
The breakdown: This is the deepest position on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. There are many teams in the NFL — even in the NFC North with the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions — that would happily take any one of Green Bay’s four top cornerbacks and instantly give them a starting job.
Tramon Williams is the veteran of the group and has started all but one game over the past three seasons. The shoulder injury that Williams suffered in Week 1 of the 2011 season stopped the progress that he was making of becoming one of the league’s best cornerbacks. Still, Williams is good in pass coverage and is durable. However, he’s coming off a season with only two interceptions, the lowest total for him since 2007.
Sam Shields wanted a big-money, multi-year contract extension this offseason and didn’t get it. He didn’t show up for offseason training activities, and when he was in Green Bay for mandatory minicamp, he spoke openly about “not getting paid.” Shields is coming off a terrific 2012 season, even though he missed six games due to injury. Shields isn’t just a fast cornerback anymore; he’s great in coverage.
Casey Hayward’s rookie season was phenomenal. Despite playing nearly 500 fewer snaps than Williams, Hayward finished fifth in the entire league in interceptions (six). Hayward excelled in the slot, but there’s little evidence to suggest that he won’t be able to handle single coverage on the outside.
Davon House hasn’t had many chances to show it yet in games, but he may be the Packers’ best cornerback. He’s already Green Bay’s biggest and most physical cornerback, but if House can stay healthy, he could quickly jump to the top of the depth chart. The first goal for House needs to be getting through the preseason injury-free. He had offseason shoulder surgery, but he expects to be completely recovered in time for training camp.
The Packers also have veteran Jarrett Bush, who started Week 1 last season before falling to the back of the depth chart. Bush is primarily a special teams player, but if Green Bay’s secondary is having tackling issues, defensive coordinator Dom Capers might put him on the field at some point. Green Bay drafted Micah Hyde in the fifth round, but with the number of quality players ahead of him, he’ll most likely have to settle in on special teams as a rookie.
Best position battle: Which two players will be the starters? Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has stated on multiple occasions since the end of last season that the Packers will have an open competition in training camp to determine the starters. Not even Williams is guaranteed a spot.
No matter how it plays out, Green Bay will be set at cornerback this season. But the results of the training camp battle could go a long way in determining the future of several of these players. If Williams — now at age 30 — gets passed up by more than one player, he could be nearing the end of his time with the Packers. If Shields doesn’t win a starting job, he’ll have no leverage with the Packers as contract negotiations continue.
This is a problem that every NFL team is fine with having. Too many good players at one position isn’t always easy to navigate for coaches, but it’s far better than having to throw a subpar player on the field and expect him to play 1,000 quality snaps in a season.
One of these four cornerbacks (Williams, Shields, Hayward, House) won’t get on the field much at all this season. There will be plenty of snaps for the top three, given the amount of nickel that Capers is once again likely to implement. But, for whichever of the four finds himself at the back of the depth chart, it could be a long, disappointing season.
The early edge goes to Williams and Shields as the starters outside with Hayward in the slot, but with Whitt declaring it to be an open competition, that could change very quickly.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Packers; 3. Vikings; 4. Lions
Chicago has one of the NFL’s best cornerback duos with Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. They’re both getting older (Tillman at 32 and Jennings at 29), but for now, the Bears have two of the league’s best cornerbacks to help them stop high-powered offenses like Green Bay’s. It’s difficult for any team to have a group of four cornerbacks who are as good as what the Packers have with Williams, Shields, Hayward and House. Minnesota will be counting on first-round pick Xavier Rhodes to step in and start right away. The Vikings released three-time Pro Bowl selection Antoine Winfield this offseason, which means Chris Cook and A.J. Jefferson — neither of whom are very good — will have to start opposite Rhodes. Detroit has one good starting cornerback, Chris Houston, but the Lions will need big seasons out of second-year player Bill Bentley.
Shields, on not getting a multi-year contract extension yet: “I’m not that guy like, ‘I’m not coming because I didn’t get paid. I need to get paid.’ Business is business. I wanted to get paid — it didn’t happen. I came and signed a tender (contract offer) and I’m here now.”