Battle No. 1: Easy as 1-2-3
Based on last year’s standard of play and this year’s contracts, there is little doubt that Sam Shields and Tramon Williams are two of the team’s top cornerbacks. Based on his All-Rookie season of 2012, there’s little doubt Casey Hayward also is one of the team’s top cornerbacks.
The pecking order, however, is very much in doubt.
“I don’t care who makes a mistake. We have five corners that have started for me and four of them that I believe are really, really good,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said, including Davon House as that fourth cornerback. “I don’t care who makes a mistake. We’re not going to have missed assignments. We’re going to make plays or the other guy will get an opportunity to do it. It doesn’t matter who it is. They have a firm understanding of that. We have to play better on defense for us to win a championship. We’re going to cut all the mental errors out of it.”
Shields is being paid to be a No. 1 cornerback, even if he hasn’t always played like one. In a vital transaction made before the start of free agency, Shields re-signed with a four-year deal worth $39 million. The big money won’t be paid until 2016 and 2017, when his base contracts swell to $8 million per season.
He is coming off his best season with four interceptions and 25 passes defensed, but he’s been guilty of the occasional mental gaffe in coverage and indifference to tackling. He played some of his best games against some of the league’s top receivers — A.J. Green, DeSean Jackson and Calvin Johnson among them — and finished among the league leaders by allowing 50,0 percent completions, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
“Sam has room to grow,” Whitt said. “There are a couple routes that we have to play better, concepts that we have to do better, to be the type of player that he’s supposed to be. He’s supposed to be an elite corner and he has that ability. We have work to do. There’s nobody satisfied. He’s happy he got that contract but we’re about winning championships here and playing at a high level, and we didn’t get that done last year.”
Williams played at a high level during the second half of the season, when he approached the elite standard he played at during the Super Bowl run of 2010. Finally past the shoulder injury and nerve damage sustained in Week 2 of 2011, Williams intercepted four passes, forced two fumbles and recovered two fumbles during the final nine games of the season (including playoffs) and tackled better than ever. He is entering the final season under contract and has a huge cap number of $9.5 million, but he played so well to end last season that there’s little reason to believe he won’t have a key role this season.
“My first few years here, I’ve grown, got a chance to play a lot and had adversity at times,” he said. “I think that adversity has made me a better person, and now it’s just that time to consistently put everything together like it should be. That’s the only thing I’m working on right now, basically making the defense better, taking my game to another level.”
Can Hayward break through and become an every-down cornerback, or will he have to settle for playing about 70 percent of the snaps as the nickel defender? In 2012, he intercepted six passes and was second among NFL corners by allowing 44.6 percent completions, according to Pro Football Focus. He showed his toughness by missing only three tackles. Last season, however, was ruined by a hamstring injury that limited him to three ho-hum games.
“I think Casey gets slighted because he’s so good in the slot but he plays really well outside, as well,” Whitt said. “With a guy that plays off (coverage) as much as him, his completion percentage against him is very, very good. Usually when guys play off, they give up more completions. He doesn’t. You go back to his rookie year, and he had one of the best completion percentages the whole year. He can play outside. He’s just so smart and so instinctive. I like him inside but that does not take away from his outside ability.”
Battle No. 2: Where does House fit?
House is entering his final season under contract. During his first three seasons, it’s frequently been a story of one step forward and one step back for the team’s tallest cornerback. His completion percentage allowed of 52.5 percent was excellent, but he also yielded a team-high five touchdown passes, according to ProFootballFocus.com. In the final four regular-season games, he played just five snaps of defense. Then, with Shields injured early in the playoff game, House played 61 of the best snaps of his career.
Barring injury, House might find it incredibly difficult to get on the field because he’s limited to playing on the outside. Thus, even in dime, House might be stuck on the sideline as Micah Hyde joins Hayward as the slot defenders.
House might have some appeal in a trade, since quality cornerbacks don’t grow on trees. Then again, quality cornerbacks don’t grow on trees and Williams isn’t getting any younger.
Battle No. 3: Rounding out depth chart
Jarrett Bush’s eighth season in the NFL might have been his finest. While his blown containment when blitzing Colin Kaepernick might have ended the Packers’ season, they wouldn’t have gotten to the playoffs without his clutch coverage against Tony Gonzalez in the must-win victory over Atlanta.
If Bush is a lock as the fifth corner, who would be No. 6? The Packers are incredibly high on Jumal Rolle, a rangy 6-foot prospect who was a Division II All-American at Catawba. He spent most of last season on the practice squad before a late-season promotion.
“He’s going to be a really good player,” Whitt predicated at the end of last season.
They also invested a sixth-round pick on Demetri Goodson, a former starting point guard at Gonzaga who quit basketball to pursue his football dreams. He led the Big 12 in passes defensed as a senior. He’s feisty, confident and quick on his feet.
“Once I learn the plays and get out there and play against Aaron, watch, I’m going to be a steal,” he said.
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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.