Sam Shields and Tramon Williams are both back with the Green Bay Packers and, along with Casey Hayward, form the best cornerback group in the NFC North.
Packers cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams are expected to return as Green Bay's starting duo next season.
Jeff Hanisch / USA TODAY Sports
By Paul ImigFOX Sports Wisconsin
This is the ninth in a series of 14 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' July 26 start of camp.
TODAY'S POSITION: CORNERBACKS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8
Projected starters: Sam Shields, Tramon Williams
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Casey Hayward, *Davon House, *Demitri Goodson, *Jarrett Bush, Antonio Dennard, Jumal Rolle, Ryan White
The breakdown: There was a point during the 2013 season in which it seemed possible that Sam Shields and Tramon Williams were both playing their final seasons with the Green Bay Packers. For Shields it was because he was proving to be one of the Packers' best defensive players, and with unrestricted free agency approaching, he could've been pricing himself out of what Green Bay might've been willing to offer. For Williams it was because it seemed possible that his level of play at times wasn't high enough to justify the Packers keeping him in 2014 in the final year of a contract that would have him as one of the team's highest-paid players. However, Green Bay didn't let Shields slip away, signing the 26-year-old cornerback to a four-year, $39 million contract this offseason. And with the way in which Williams finished up the season in such a positive way, the Packers weren't going to even try to renegotiate the last year of his deal.
Having Shields and Williams at outside cornerback gives Green Bay a very good duo. Neither of them is among the 15-best NFL players at the position, but both would start on almost every team in the league. So, what could've been two new starters for the Packers in 2014 is instead a group that's been together for four years, knows Green Bay's defense and knows the very difficult competition at wide receiver that the NFC North brings. Defending Detroit's Calvin Johnson (who is now being joined by Golden Tate to deliver some semblance of a 1-2 punch) and Chicago's star duo of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery will test any cornerback, but the Packers know what they'll be getting against them with Shields and Williams.
Casey Hayward looked like a star in the making as a rookie in 2012. Six interceptions put him in close contention for the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award and had Green Bay's coaching staff frequently stating that Hayward always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. But a hamstring injury before the 2013 training camp (and the two subsequent reinjuries) led to Hayward only playing 88 snaps.
Davon House is still waiting for a breakout moment. He has the size and strength that is desirable for a cornerback, but he's trying to put it all together as he enters his fourth season. Jarrett Bush is the veteran that always does enough to stick around. Bush's work ethic is unmatched, but his value lies more on special teams than on defense. Demitri Goodson is a rookie sixth-rounder who, already at age 25, will need to catch on early in his career. Unless Goodson has a disastrous training camp, he'll make the team and have a chance to compete for snaps.
Best position battle: Hayward's overall snaps and role
There's a slight chance Hayward beats out Williams for a starting job outside. It may only be a five percent chance, so don't count on it. But if by midway through preseason Hayward is consistently showing the ability to be in the right place at the right time, the Packers can't ignore it. Williams, meanwhile, will need to look like the late-2013-season version of himself and not the version that had many wondering if he was past the point in his career of being an impact player.
More realistically, though, is that Hayward mostly plays in the slot this season and moves outside as a starter in 2015. But even the slot position isn't guaranteed to him. In Hayward's absence last season, Micah Hyde was great in the slot and has Green Bay's coaching staff firmly believing that he's one of the best 11 defensive players on the team. Hyde is not listed among the cornerbacks for purposes of this series because he'll likely play more as a safety than as a slot corner. But if Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is able to handle himself as a Day 1 starter next to Morgan Burnett, then the Packers will look at a different role for Hyde. That different role would put him in direct competition with Hayward to be the top slot cornerback on the roster.
It's rare that a player has as good of a rookie season as Hayward did in 2012 and then fails to ever again make an impression. But Hayward is in a spot where he could find himself a significant contributor on defense or being the next man up in two different cornerback roles. He'll need to show in training camp why he should be the former rather than the latter.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Bears; 3. Vikings; 4. Lions
Green Bay ranks atop the division at cornerback as there is no other trio as good as Shields, Williams and Hayward. Chicago isn't far behind, though, especially after using its first-round pick (No. 14 overall) this year to draft Kyle Fuller. The Bears still have veterans Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, but both are on the wrong side of 30 years old and not in the prime of their careers. Minnesota used a 2013 first-round pick on cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who showed a lot of promise as a rookie. He's joined by free-agent acquisition Captain Munnerlyn, who's coming off a very good season with the Carolina Panthers. Detroit is counting on a couple young cornerbacks to step up: 2012 third-round pick Bill Bentley and 2013 second-round pick Darius Slay. Veteran Rashean Mathis will be back for a second season with the Lions. Mathis was given a positive rating by ProFootballFocus last season (best in the division, in fact) despite not recording any interceptions.