Packers.com is examining the Packers' roster, position by position. In the seventh installment, we look at the defensive backs.
GREEN BAY—The simplest way to analyze the Packers secondary is to recognize two things.
First, there isn't a stronger position on the roster than cornerback.
Second, following the recent release of Charles Woodson, there isn't a younger position on the roster than safety.
The Packers feel they have four starting-caliber corners coming out of 2012. That was confirmed after the season by position coach Joe Whitt Jr., who said the starting jobs for 2013 would be open to competition amongst Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House.
Williams is the veteran of the bunch whose play improved following an injury-plagued 2011 but who has yet to return to being the playmaker of 2010. Williams had just two interceptions last season, both in Week 2, his lowest total since becoming a regular starter in 2008.
It should be noted, however, that Williams was frequently assigned to cover the opponent's top target, and his work in the NFC North against Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Chicago's Brandon Marshall went a long way toward the Packers going 4-0 against those rivals.
Shields bounced back from an uneven 2011 with a strong 2012 that showcased his improved tackling. He's a restricted free agent whom the Packers almost certainly intend to keep with a high-tender offer, and he performed especially well following a six-week absence due to an ankle injury. Over the final six games (including two playoff contests), Shields intercepted four passes, returning one for an early TD in the divisional-round loss at San Francisco.
Shields could be considered a rising star, as is Hayward. A second-round draft pick, Hayward led the Packers and all NFL rookies with six interceptions. He also led Green Bay with 25 passes defensed in the regular season (one more than Williams), as he settled into the slot corner role in the nickel package the Packers employ more than any other on defense. Even if Hayward doesn't become a starter on the outside in base, he's a de facto starter in the slot in nickel.
House has only a half-season's games under his belt through two years, due to injuries, but he remains an intriguing and promising prospect. He had surgery on his troublesome shoulder this offseason and hopes to show what he can do at full health. Playing with a shoulder harness last season, he had multiple pass break-ups five times over a span of six games while Shields was out.
Veteran Jarrett Bush and practice-squad holdover James Nixon round out the depth chart at corner. Bush has filled in when needed in the past, but look for the Packers to continue developing young players to keep the position well-stocked. It's a necessity in a pass-oriented league.
At safety there are more questions for the Packers as they look for a full-time starter alongside Morgan Burnett. With Woodson gone, Burnett is the new veteran at the position, heading into just his fourth season.
M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian both played extensively last season while Woodson was injured and will be given the opportunity to prove they can be long-term answers. If either can smooth out the ups and downs from 2012, that could free up the more consistent Burnett (two sacks, two interceptions) to make more big plays in 2013.
Another youngster, Sean Richardson, could get his shot as well, provided he returns from a neck injury in good health. At 6-2, 216, Richardson is considerably bigger than Jennings or McMillian, and he was just starting to make an impact on special teams as an undrafted rookie last year when the neck injury ended his season.
With practice-squad holdover Chaz Powell the only other safety currently on the roster, the Packers may invest a draft pick or two at the position. In a draft said to possess considerable safety talent, spending a high pick is a distinct possibility. The only safeties the Packers have selected in the past five drafts are Burnett (third round, 2010) and McMillian (fourth round, 2012).
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