Projected starters: Charles Woodson (15th season), Tramon Williams (sixth season)
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Jarrett Bush, *Casey Hayward, *Davon House, Otis Merrill, Brandian Ross, *Sam Shields, Dion Turner
The breakdown: Like the safety position, Green Bay’s cornerbacks situation can only be discussed by first evaluating Woodson’s role. No one within the Packers organization has made it clear exactly what that might be, but based on where Woodson lined up most often last season and coach Mike McCarthy’s comment about a six-to-10 percent role change for Woodson, it will mean splitting time between cornerback and safety. Most likely, Woodson will be at safety in the team’s 3-4 scheme and at slot cornerback in nickel and dime packages. It appears that Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers will use more nickel and dime this season, with the 3-4 “base” defense being less frequent.
With Woodson now in this hybrid role, it leaves more responsibility on the rest of the cornerbacks. That will start with Williams, the only certain starter at the moment.
Williams suffered a significant shoulder injury in Week 1 last season and only missed one game because of it. However, the damage done to his shoulder affected Williams’ play on the field. After a breakout 2010 season that included his first Pro Bowl, a Super Bowl ring and a career-high six interceptions, Williams’ injury made it difficult to perform at that level again.
If Williams is healthy this season, he has the skills to be dominant. But if a weakened shoulder doesn’t allow him to perform well in bump-and-run coverage — where he excelled previously — it may be difficult to expect a Pro-Bowl-caliber season from Williams.
Woodson’s altered role also means that Shields, Bush, House and the team’s second-round pick Hayward, will all need to step up.
Last season, the Packers’ secondary had some categories with great statistics and some categories with terrible stats. The good part was an NFL-leading 31 interceptions. The next best teams (New England and San Francisco) both had only 23, so the Packers won in a landslide. However, Green Bay’s 2011 defense holds an all-time league record that they want no part in, allowing more passing yards than any team in NFL history.
Considering the Packers led the league in points scored, the best argument to excuse some of those yards allowed on defense is that Green Bay was always winning by so much that opposing teams were in hurry-up mode all the time. Keeping up with Aaron Rodgers and the offense was a nearly impossible task for the rest of the league last season, so opposing teams threw it deep regularly and gained a lot of yards in the process. But it doesn’t excuse the poor communication in the secondary that McCarthy discussed frequently last season.
Improved play at safety this season will certainly help the cornerbacks, but Williams and the rest of the group really need a bounce-back year to take some pressure off the Packers’ offense.
Best position battle: Given Woodson’s likely new role as a slot cornerback / safety, the outside cornerback spot opposite of Williams is up for grabs. Shields appeared to be the most likely option, but he was behind Bush on the depth chart during most sessions of the minicamp and OTA practices.
After going undrafted in 2010, Shields had a very good rookie season. However, without the benefit of offseason practices in 2011 due to the NFL lockout, Shields was one of the players who did not build on his previous success. He struggled, especially with his tackling, and made a couple decisions that left McCarthy scratching his head. One of those decisions ended with a concussion for Shields after inexplicably trying to return an interception out from deep in the end zone. The talent is there for Shields, but if it doesn’t show up often enough in training camp, he could lose out on a starting job.
In Bush’s six years with the Packers, he hasn’t looked like an every-down outside cornerback. He is a very solid tackler, however, and that was a major issue for the team this offseason to address. If Bush’s coverage skills are much improved, he could be starting.
The team has big plans for Hayward, using a second-round pick to get him, but it likely won’t be a starting role as a rookie. But with the spot open for the taking, a strong training camp performance could get him in.
House will also have every chance to be a starter. After being drafted by Green Bay in the fourth round in 2011, House only appeared in two games as a rookie. But, like Shields and every other young player, not having offseason practices last season hurt House’s ability to properly get ready for the NFL. He has a lot of talent and good size and is definitely the wild card to win this starting spot.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Lions; 3. Bears; 4. Vikings. Despite the Packers’ struggles in yards allowed last season, their NFL-best mark in interceptions puts them atop this list. The Lions finished fifth in the league last season in interceptions, with Chris Houston leading the team with five. And, despite Detroit finishing 22nd overall in the league in yards allowed, the Lions actually were the best in the NFC North in that category. The Vikings finished with eight interceptions as a team last season. That is only one more than Woodson had all by himself. In a division with two top-notch quarterbacks like Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, it’s not easy to be a cornerback in the NFC North right now. Until a Darrelle Revis-type corner shows up in the division, Rodgers and Stafford might continue breaking passing records.
Woodson says: “I just continue to do the things I’ve done in the past. You know, I play a little bit here, a little bit there, where I’m needed each week and make the team better. As we move along, of course I’ll do more. We’re just easing into it. I’ve played a great deal of safety already since I’ve been here, and whether or not I play some this year, I don’t think it will be any different from what I’ve done in the past. The main objective is to win games and win the Super Bowl, and that’s really all I’m focused on.”