Camp Clashes: Defensive Backs

Casey Hayward heads a top-flight group of corners, with a huge battle looming for the three starting spots and more battles further down the depth chart. At safety, Morgan Burnett is the obvious leader of a young group.

With the Green Bay Packers opening training camp on Friday, Packer Report takes a closer look at the defensive backs.

The star

Casey Hayward: Hayward is coming off an all-rookie season in which he finished third for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

He was simply brilliant. He allowed no touchdowns and six interceptions and 44.6 percent completions, according to His passer rating allowed of 31.1 led the NFL. For perspective, the best cornerback in the league is probably Seattle's Richard Sherman, who allowed a rating of 41.1. Darrelle Revis led the league in 2011 with a rating of 45.6. Only Revis' league-leading mark of 32.3 in 2010 can compare in recent years, according to

Hayward isn't a physical tackler — at least not in comparison to Charles Woodson — but he's an effective tackler, with just two missed tackles last season.

For years, Woodson was the prized piece on defensive coordinator Dom Capers' chess board. Hayward might not reach that lofty level but he's got the talent, intelligence and ball skills to be a star for the next decade.

The big battle

Starting safety: Who will start opposite Morgan Burnett? M.D. Jennings will open camp atop the depth chart but he'll have to hold off Jerron McMillian.

Playing about the same number of reps, Jennings tallied 46 tackles, one interception and six passes defensed while McMillian finished with 30 tackles, one interception and 13 passes defensed. Jennings played strictly safety; McMillian played some safety but got the bulk of his time as the dime defensive back.

Safeties coach Darren Perry wants Jennings to play with more confidence. "His confidence level should be pretty high," Perry said. For McMillian, it's about "production and consistency," Perry added.

"Jerron probably has a little more explosiveness at the line of scrimmage, a little bit more of a thumper," Perry continued. "M.D. probably gives you a little more range and has good ball skills. Both of those guys have some things that you like and you could really use in helping your defense."

The sleepers

CB Brandon Smith, CB Loyce Means, CB James Nixon; S Sean Richardson: Richardson is big, fast and intelligent. If he's moved past the neck injury that required surgery and can put it all together, he could make a run at a starting job. Certainly, his pure physical skill-set would be an asset against a big running quarterback like Colin Kaepernick.

"Being a big competitor like I am, that's all I do and that's what got me here is working hard," Richardson, who will start camp on the active/PUP list, said in the spring. "I wasn't always the best player on the field but I always worked for it, always competed, and I play with a passion. That's what got me here and that's what's keeping me going and that's what helped me through this surgery and the rehab."

The Packers have three intriguing young talents with speed to burn at cornerback. Nixon played both sides of the ball and was a big-time kickoff returner at Temple. Smith played receiver at Arizona State but worked with Revis' trainer in making the move to cornerback. Means' path to the NFL started by running into Packers scout Alonzo Highsmith at an airport in Memphis.

The bubble

Jarrett Bush: The Packers used a fifth-round pick on Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde, and he spent most of the offseason playing the dime position manned by McMillian for much of last year. If Hyde shows promise in the preseason, he'll likely force his way onto the roster. Bush, 29, is the Packers' longtime special-teams ace. He has cap charges of $1.78 million in 2013 and $2.03 million in 2014. Between Hyde and the promising rookies, Bush could be the odd man out.

The long shots

Ryan McMahon and David Fulton: The Packers added a seventh safety to the mix, McMahon, a two-year starter at Sacramento State who participated in the Packers' rookie camp as a tryout participant. Fulton, from Division II Chowan, was added halfway through the offseason practices and isn't exactly well-versed in nuances of Capers' scheme, either. The Packers' weakest position — on paper, anyway — is safety, so they've got a fighting chance of making a run at a roster spot. Special teams will be key, and McMahon was the top special-teams tackler at USC as a sophomore.

The bottom line

The cornerback group is tremendous. Davon House, who was the front-runner to be the second cornerback early in camp last summer, is on the outside looking in heading into training camp due to the development of Hayward and, especially, Sam Shields. Shields, who will be playing for a big payday, ranked first in completions allowed, second in yards and sixth in completion percentage, according to Had he not had two mental breakdowns leading to long gains, Shields would have led the league in yardage allowed by a mile.

It will be a great battle between Tramon Williams, Hayward, House and Shields for the top three on the pecking order. Add in Hyde and the speedy rookies, and the Packers have enviable depth at a critical position. Because of the talent, this might be the position in which there could be a September shocker.

The depth is badly lacking at safety. Burnett is an ascending player but Jennings was merely so-so and McMillian was so inconsistent that he barely got on the field in the playoffs. The Packers need growth from all three if they're going to contend for a championship.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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