GREEN BAY, Wis. — One of the most competitive position battles taking place in Packers training camp is to see which cornerback wins the starting outside spot on the opposite side of proven veteran Tramon Williams.
After three training camp practices, seventh-year player Jarrett Bush appears to be in the lead by a relatively significant margin. Sam Shields, who had a very good rookie season in 2010 but took a step back last season, was the biggest threat to Bush becoming a starter.
However, Shields has struggled thus far in training camp and was demoted during Saturday morning’s practice. When Green Bay went into its dime packages on defense, Shields was replaced midway through the 11-on-11 drills by second-year cornerback Davon House.
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As soon as House took over, the 2011 fourth-round pick made two positive plays. First, House broke up a pass intended for James Jones and soon after recovered a fumble.
Rookie Casey Hayward, who was drafted by the Packers in the second round, has come up with interceptions in each of the past two practices. But both times it was with the second-string defense, with Hayward intercepting backup quarterback Graham Harrell.
Given the developments during Saturday’s practice, the battle for that starting cornerback spot looks like Bush is in the lead, followed now by House, then Shields, then Hayward.
“(Bush) is doing a very good job,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s played nickel and dime in the past, and I think it’s important to give Jarrett an opportunity to focus in on a position or two. I think that was a mistake that I’ve made with him in the past was try to do too much with him.”
Bush was described by McCarthy as an “extremely physical, competitive player.” On a team that is emphasizing tackling after a poor 2011 season in that area, those are skills that have helped Bush.
“I expect to be great,” Bush told FOXSportsWisconsin.com. “That’s just one of the things where I put pressure on myself, but I thrive on that. If I’m trying to be great, I’m just going to keep pushing and pushing. I want to win. I want to win that Super Bowl again, because that felt great.”
Bush has been predominantly a special teams player for the majority of his six years in the NFL, all of which have been with the Packers. But Green Bay’s coaching staff may have tipped its hand in last season’s playoff game when it comes to their evaluations on Bush and Shields.
After an entire season of Shields being the Packers’ nickel cornerback, it was Bush who was in that spot throughout Green Bay’s home playoff loss to the New York Giants in January.
“It’s gratifying, but I’m not satisfied,” Bush said of his recent promotion. “You always try to keep working upward, you never want to plateau. The way I came up, I’m just always going to keep working hard. Being undrafted, working my way from the bottom to the top … I’m a perfectionist and I want to be great.”
This is not good news for Shields’ career, which got off to such a promising start two years ago. After going undrafted in 2010, Shields made the Packers’ roster as a rookie and played the third-most snaps of any cornerback on the team. In addition to his very positive overall rating from ProFootballFocus.com, Shields had two interceptions in the NFC Championship Game to help Green Bay beat the Bears in Chicago and advance to the Super Bowl.
But last season, Shields finished with the worst overall rating of the Packers’ cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus.com and had 10 missed tackles.
Throughout training camp, the biggest critique that Shields has been receiving from the coaching staff is on his tackling.
“It’s going to get better,” Shields told FOXSportsWisconsin.com. “Last year, I missed a lot of tackles. It’s something I just have to keep working on. I’m not making any excuses. I’m still young, still working at it. Each day is getting better and better.”
When House took his spot during Saturday’s practice, Shields wasn’t overly discouraged.
“It’s a big competition going on,” Shields said. “I just gotta do what I’m supposed to do. I can’t worry about it. Whatever decision they make upstairs, hey, I gotta go forward.”
For House, however, this was a big leap forward. He made the active roster last season but only appeared in two games.
“I did make a couple plays today, but there’s still some plays where I feel like I was beat a little bit,” House said. “I still have a lot to improve. Sam had a wonderful first year. Last year he didn’t do as good as he did the first year.”
Even as Charles Woodson made the switch from cornerback to safety in Green Bay’s 3-4 base defense for this upcoming season, House believed that he wouldn’t really have a chance to earn major snaps quite this early in his career.
“I looked at it as JB (Bush) and Sam battling it out,” House said. “JB and Sam have earned it. I haven’t earned it yet, but I’m preparing if I’m given that opportunity.”
With 17 training camp practices still remaining, the depth chart could change several times between now and the start of the regular season. But after the Packers allowed more passing yards than any team in NFL history last year, whichever player ends up winning that starting cornerback spot will have a lot of work to do to help turn Green Bay’s defense around.