Cornerback Tramon Williams breaks up a pass intended for Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Michael Jenkins during the fourth quarter of the NFC Wild Card playoff game at Lambeau Field. The Packers won 24-10. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph
We’ll continue taking a close look at the Green Bay Packers defense by discussing arguably their deepest position on the roster – cornerback.
The play of the defensive backfield greatly improved last season from the 2011 debacle. With the addition of rookie playmaker, Casey Hayward, and with Sam Shields bouncing back from a rough 2011 season, the Packers cornerbacks became a position of strength last year.
The Green Bay pass defense went from dead last in the league in 2011 to 11th in 2012. That’s a pretty significant improvement. With the Packers corners relatively the same group as last year, we should expect the position to continue to improve in 2013.
Positions coach Joe Whitt announced this offseason that there’ll be an open competition for the two starting spots this season. Considering the Packers’ depth at cornerback, we should expect some good competition in training camp.
Green Bay seems set at the position in 2013 with four solid cornerbacks on the roster. There is very little that separates these four players as far as talent and ability, so it will come down to who shows up on game day in determining who will win the starting spots at the position. Each player in this group his highly gifted and brings something unique to the group.
Cornerback Sam Shields (right) celebrates an interception with cornerback Tramon Williams (left) during the NFC Wild Card playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. The Packers won 24-10. Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Williams is the closest thing the Packers have to a shutdown corner, and he has proven in the past he can contain bigger receivers such as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson or Chicago’s Brandon Marshall. Williams is the veteran of the group and brings a lot of experience and cunning to the defensive backfield. However, he seemed timid at times last year when making tackles in the run game, and his ability to make big time interceptions has trailed off the past few years.
Williams suffered a devastating shoulder injury in 2011 and hasn’t looked to be the same player since the injury. However, Williams played much better last year than in 2011 and could be back on track to returning to his outstanding 2010 form. The young ascending players at the position will push Williams to perform at his best this season, and I think he will respond with a strong 2013 season.
Shields’ play severely dropped off in 2011. He struggled to shut down bigger receivers and was a weak tackler in the open field. Shields made it a goal last offseason to improve his tackling and become a stronger and more physical player.
The difference was significant. Despite missing some time due to injury, Shields had one of his best seasons last year. He recorded three interceptions, improved his coverage skills, and became a much more proficient tackler.
He was a restricted free agent this offseason and signed the one year $2.023 million tender. Shields is an ascending player at the position, and if he has a strong 2013 season, look for the Packers to re-sign him to a long-term contract.
Shields enters this season competing with Hayward and House for a starting spot. Shields is one of Green Bay’s most physically gifted cornerbacks, and he has experience on his side. He just needs to be more consistent on the field if he wants to hold down the starting role. Hayward and House will definitely challenge him this year for playing time.
Casey Hayward intercepts a pass from Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne (87) during second half action. The Colts went on to defeat the Packers, 30-27. Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Hayward is the rising star of the group. He led the team last season with six interceptions as a rookie, showcasing his playmaking ability. Maybe more impressively, Hayward also led the team in passes defended with 21 and demonstrated the cover abilities of a seasoned veteran.
Hayward played well as the Packers nickel corner – a position that requires a player to have good instincts at which to excel. Regardless if he starts or not, I still expect Hayward to retain his nickel corner position.
Let’s hope Hayward’s outstanding rookie season wasn’t a fluke, and that he can continue to improve in 2013. With Woodson gone, the Packers will need some players to step up this season and fill the playmaking void he left in the secondary. Look for Hayward to be this guy. A tall order to ask for the second year player, but I have a hunch he won’t let us down.
After dealing with a prohibiting shoulder injury all of last season, House’s young career has been off to a rough start. Last offseason, House looked like one of Green Bay’s best cover corners and had the starting spot opposite Williams locked up heading into the preseason opener. After dislocating his shoulder and playing the entire 2012 season with a shoulder harness, House wasn’t the same player. He couldn’t play as physical as he wanted, and consequently, he found himself as the Packers’ fourth corner on the roster.
House brings size and strength to the position. He has the ability to jam bigger receivers at the line and bring a physical presence to the position. Look for House to make a big jump this season and push Hayward and Shields for playing time.
Bush and Hyde are the frontrunners for the fifth cornerback spot on the roster. Ironically, Hyde and Bush are a similar type of player. They are a similar size. They both lack elite speed, but are good tacklers and have the ability to play safety, if needed.
Bush has experience on his side and has been one of Green Bay’s best special teams players the past few seasons. He brings energy and leadership to the field, but hasn’t performed well when given the chance to be a consistent contributor at cornerback. Remember, Bush started at cornerback week one last season, but by mid-season he nearly disappeared on defense, getting pushed back to the fifth cornerback on the depth chart. Bush’s skill set may be better suited for safety, but so far this offseason there has not been a position switch for the special teams ace.
Cornerback Micah Hyde works out during organized team activities at Clarke Hinkle Field in Green Bay. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Does the addition of Hyde mean Bush’s time in Green Bay is about up? Considering the depth at the position, I have a hard time seeing the Packers keeping Bush on the roster to only contribute on special teams, but he has survived roster cuts every season reprising such a role.
When the Packers drafted Hyde in the fifth round in this year’s draft many believed Green Bay intended to move the young cornerback to safety. Hyde is a strong tackler, has good size, and has some experience playing safety in college. This switch would make sense. However, the Green Bay coaches have made it clear Hyde will play cornerback this season.
Hyde has the edge over Bush for making the final roster because Green Bay invested a draft pick in him, and they seem to really like his potential at the position. Hyde has looked impressive in offseason team activities so far, but considering the depth at the position, for Hyde to make his mark in his rookie season he will need to find a role on special teams.
James Nixon (right) works out during the Green Bay Packers rookie orientation weekend. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Means, Smith, and Nixon all have their work cut out for them to even crack the 53-man roster this season. There are already six solid cornerbacks ahead of them on the depth chart. One of these three players will have to really impress the coaches during training camp and find a key role on special teams to make the final roster.
Means might showcase some potential as returner, which may win him a roster spot, and Smith has the size to perhaps provide some depth at safety, as well. Nixon spent some time on the Packers practice squad last season, so he has some experience with the defense.
Despite all of this, these players will need some outside help – like a rush of injuries at the position – to land roster spots. At this point, it seems their best shot is making the practice squad.
Last year the Packers kept five cornerbacks on their final roster (Williams, Shields, Hayward, House, and Bush). I expect them to keep this group largely intact with the top four cornerbacks staying the same and Hyde and Bush competing for the fifth spot. There’s a good chance a player from Means, Smith, and Nixon will make the practice squad and provide depth if the position is stricken with injuries during the season.
Despite the group being relatively the same this year, expect a lot of shuffling among the top four spots in training camp. Any number of these players could start or hold down the nickel spot, so there should be some exciting competition at the position.
This will definitely be one of the camp battles you’ll want to keep a close eye on this year.