DEPTH CHART: 2013
UNDER CONTRACT: 2014
Bush, Dennard, Hayward, House, Hyde, Nixon, Rolle and Williams. (Shields is an unrestricted free agent.)
The grade: B. The Packers finished 24th against the pass. Only four teams allowed more 20-yard completions. Those numbers are more a black eye on the terrible coverage from the linebackers and safeties than the play of the cornerbacks.
Shields is one of the better cornerbacks in the league. With just five years of cornerback on his football resume, he hasn't reached his ceiling. Once Williams got into a midseason groove after a knee injury early in training camp robbed him of the preseason, he was arguably the best defensive player on the team.
To say Hayward, who was runner-up as Defensive Rookie of the Year with six interceptions in 2012, was hit by a sophomore slump would be an understatement. He missed the start of training camp with an injured hamstring, injured it again during camp and injured it for a third time in his third game back. The defense badly missed his ball skills. House ran hot and cold and wound up benched in favor of Hyde (from dime to nickel) and Bush (from the bench to dime). Hyde was one of the steals of the draft, his relative lack of straight-line speed notwithstanding. Once Bush entered the lineup, the Packers' dime unit generally got off the field on third-and-long.
The good: There was plenty of good, starting with the re-emergence of Williams. After the season, he talked at length about the shoulder injury sustained in Week 1 of the 2011 season. He kept playing with the injury, even though his arm "was really good for nothing." It gradually got better through 2011 and 2012 but "felt great" in 2013.
It showed during the second half of the season. In his final eight games (including the playoff game), Williams intercepted four passes, forced one fumble and recovered one fumble. Once a liability as a tackler because of the shoulder, the Packers used Williams in the nickel (slot) position, which demands physically, for several weeks. More often than not, Williams was up to the challenge. He was an efficient blitzer, ranking 10th in ProFootballFocus.com's pass-rushing productivity metric with eight total pressures (2.5 sacks) in 34 pass-rushing snaps.
Hyde was quite a find as the 38th defensive back selected. As soon as the pads went on in training camp, it was obvious he was ready, willing and able to hit. Like Williams, Hyde was an adept blitzer. Had he had enough snaps to qualify, he would have ranked third in ProFootballFocus.com's run-stop metric.
The bad: The Packers were the NFL's interception kings from 2009 through 2012, with their 103 interceptions blowing away second-place New England's total of 86. This season, only four teams had fewer interceptions than Green Bay's 11. Clearly, the Packers missed Hayward's ball-hawking skills. Amplifying Hayward's injury was House playing himself onto the bench after a bad Thanksgiving at Detroit.
The surprise: For years, Bush's play at cornerback was like a fire extinguisher: Use only in case of emergency. This season, however, Bush was an asset while playing the dime position for the final seven games. Who could have guessed that it would be Bush playing the role of hero in the season-saving victory over Atlanta?
The coach says: "I honestly thought (Hayward) had the best offseason of anybody before we were coming back from training camp. And when he called me and told me he pulled his hamstring, I could have just fell out of my chair, because the way he looked during the offseason, I thought he would have one of those 1-2 spots. If he can just get his body back right, we're going to have an opportunity to be really impactful when we get him back because he's a guy that has natural instincts. He understands how to get the ball." — CBs coach Joe Whitt
Can the Packers retain Shields? That's the many-millions-of-dollars question. Good, young cornerbacks don't grow on trees, especially cornerbacks with Shields' speed and upside. Represented by agent Drew Rosenhaus, it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if a bidding war broke out. Do the Packers have the stomach to hand Shields a big payday? Will they use the franchise tag on him? The franchise tag cost $10.668 million last season. Shields has missed 11 games in four seasons and barely played in the playoff game. And for as good as he's become, he's still prone to mental errors that lead to a few big plays allowed per season. On the other hand, he was the one bright spot in the Thanksgiving loss at Detroit with his coverage on Calvin Johnson, he made a sensational interception to help win the game at Dallas and he clinched the win at Chicago.
If the Packers can retain Shields, keep Williams — which seems like a decent bet, even with a $7.5 million base salary — and get the 2012 edition of Hayward, they will have as good a trio of cornerbacks as any team in the league. And if that's the case, would the Packers consider moving Hyde to safety, where there are major issues?
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.