The Green Bay Packers roster is deep at cornerback. A good thing in today’s pass-happy NFL. However, the depth at the position is being tested in camp with a number of injuries.
Veteran Tramon Williams is out with a knee injury he suffered early in camp and second year player Casey Hayward has yet to see the field due to a hamstring injury. Both players will miss the preseason opener and could be out for another couple of weeks.
This means young defensive backs James Nixon, Brandon Smith, and Loyce Means should get plenty of playing time Friday night against the Arizona Cardinals. Nixon, Smith, and Means have all been rotating in the second team nickel defense during practice, and if Williams and Hayward have to miss a few more weeks, the young corners could get more opportunities to make their case for a final roster spot.
The young defensive backs have had their moments in camp. Nixon had the 65-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Packers Family Night Scrimmage, and Smith beat out receiver Jeremy Ross for a jump ball to snag the interception in the end zone. Smith and Nixon also had interceptions the opening weekend of camp and have flashed solid coverage skills over the past two weeks.
Nixon and Smith are still relatively raw and have been schooled plenty of times by the Packers veteran receivers, but they each bring something unique to the position.
Nixon has blazing speed. Coming out of Temple in 2012, Nixon was clocked as fast as 4.29 in the 40, which is incredibly fast. Defensive back coach Joe Whitt even said that Nixon is the only player on the roster who can match Shields’ top tier speed. Nixon is nearly the exact same size as Shields (6-0, 186 pounds), and appears to be a very similar type of player. Nixon shows a natural knack for breaking on the ball and can run pace-for-pace with any player he faces; however, Nixon can still get out of place on the field or lose a step in coverage going against shiftier veteran receivers.
Smith is a converted college wide receiver and still has a long way to go in learning the position. However, Smith’s size (6-1, 205 pounds) and speed (4.40) make him an interesting prospect at cornerback. So far in camp, Smith has flashed the ability to make a play on the ball, but he has also been beat pretty badly on play action and other stunt routes.
The big unknown at this position is former Canadian Football League defensive back Loyce Means. He has had a pretty quiet camp so far. He got called for two pass inference calls in the Family Night Scrimmage and has been inconsistent. However, Means may have had the most impressive performance in Wednesday’s practice. During the one-on-one passing/coverage drill the cornerbacks only tallied four victories against the wide receivers, but two of those victories came from Means. He beat out Randall Cobb and camp standout Tyrone Walker, demonstrating tight coverage as he shadowed the receivers on their routes.
There aren’t a lot of roster spots available at cornerback. Last year the Packers kept five cornerbacks on their 53-man roster, but considering the youth and depth at the position, I wouldn’t be surprised if they went into this season with six cornerbacks.
The top four cornerback spots seem like locks with Williams, Shields, Hayward, and House holding down these spots. Fifth round pick Micah Hyde seems like a good bet for the fifth cornerback spot on the roster. So if the Packers were to keep six that leaves only one spot available at the position for veteran special teams ace Jarrett Bush and youngsters Nixon, Smith, and Means.
In camp, both Nixon and Smith have gotten looks ahead of Bush in team drills, but does this mean the team values these two players above the veteran cornerback?
This will be something to keep a close eye on as the preseason games approach. If the Packers play Nixon, Smith, or Means ahead of Bush in defensive sets during the exhibition games then that might mean Bush will be the odd man out come cut day.
Considering his performance so far in camp and his possible contributions on special teams, Nixon seems like he’s got the best chance out of the young defensive backs to make the Packers final roster, but this would mean Green Bay does in fact keep six cornerbacks and lets Jarrett Bush go.
Now it’s possible the Packers shift Bush over at safety to backup Burnett, McMillian, and Jennings, and that way still keep him as a special teams contributor. But if this is not the case, then at what point is Bush’s special teams contributions worth letting go in favor of the young promising cornerback talent?
Regardless of what happens Nixon, Smith, and Means will have to really impress in the preseason to make it on the team this year. It should be a good competition to watch over the next few weeks. Maybe one of them even lands themselves on the Packers practice squad with their play in August.