Who Plays at Corner, Nickel?

The Packers have plenty of candidates, with the battle starting with the beginning of OTAs this week. Casey Hayward's versatility could be the key to sorting it all out.

Hayward photo by Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY

Even after losing Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency, the Green Packers have a glut of cornerbacks.

What must be figured out is who lines up where.

The figuring-out process begins with three weeks of organized team activities, which start on Wednesday.

Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde combined for seven interceptions and 31 passes defensed in 2014. That makes them the clear front-runners for the first three spots, even though the Packers used a first-round pick on Damarious Randall and a second-round pick on Quinten Rollins.

With Hayward, Hyde, Randall and Rollins, “that’s a lot of nickels,” as one scout put it, alluding to the nickel (aka slot) position. Beginning this week, the process of determining who starts opposite Shields on the outside and who mans the slot will begin.

“The cornerback room has changed this year with Tramon and Davon leaving and Jarrett (Bush) being up in the air,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said after the Packers drafted Rollins. “The attitude of the room, nothing really changes with the way we will approach the room. The best players will play. The next guys will sit there and work to get ready to play. Are they going to play inside? Are they going to play outside? We’ll let practice and all that figure that out. So, I know that’s going to be a question that I’m going to be asked. So, you don’t have to ask it. We’re going to let practice figure out where they’ll be played. And the main thing is we’re excited to have the skill-sets that they bring to our secondary.”

At first blush, the best bet would have Shields and Hayward on the outside with Hyde in the slot. After all, Hayward played well on the outside as a rookie and Hyde performed well while manning the slot for most of last season. From the outside in 2012, Hayward posted four of his six interceptions and allowed a 36.3 passer rating against, based on numbers at ProFootballFocus.com. In 2014, Hyde was one of 25 cornerbacks who played at least 200 coverage snaps in the slot, and he finished sixth in that group with a passer rating allowed of 81.7.

However, the Packers could go another route. While Hayward has played well during his limited action on the outside, he’s been tremendous in the slot. As was the case in 2014, 25 cornerbacks played at least 200 coverage snaps from the slot in 2012. Of that group, Hayward allowed a passer rating of 45.6 — a whopping 11.3 points better than anyone else. Moreover, he allowed a completion rate of 45.8 percent. Not only was that the best in the league by a considerable margin — Denver’s Chris Harris was next at 53.7 percent — but only three other corners allowed less than even 60 percent.

Hayward was pretty darned good in the slot in 2014, too, as demonstrated by PFF’s numbers. He tied for second in passer rating allowed (71.3), was first with one completion allowed for every 13.5 snaps in coverage and one targeted pass for every 8.8 snaps in coverage, and tied for first with three interceptions.

If Hayward continues that high level of play and can stay healthy, he might emerge as a starting cornerback in the base defense and the No. 1 nickel defender. That could lead to a nickel package of, for example, Shields and Randall outside with Hayward at nickel. Or, to take advantage of Hyde’s combination of toughness and coverage ability, the Packers could go with Shields and Hayward outside with Hyde at nickel in running situations and Shields and Randall outside with Hayward at nickel in passing situations. Hyde could then pair with Hayward as the nickel and dime defenders on third-and-long.

Regardless, it will be up to Whitt to coax the best out of a young group. Shields — the old man of the group at age 27 — has 49 career starts, Hyde 15 and Hayward nine. None of the other eight corners on the roster has played an NFL snap on defense.

“My job as a defensive back coach, No. 1, is to get my players to do what Dom Capers wants them to do,” Whitt said. “I don’t care who they bring in the room, I’m going to coach them as hard as I can and I’m going to get the most out of everybody that comes in that room. If they’re No. 1 or if they’re a free agent, I really don’t care. I’m going to coach them as hard as I can to one goal, and that’s to win a championship. If it’s a first-rounder or a free agent, if you play well, you’ll play; if you don’t, you’ll sit there and watch.

“I hope both of these guys (Randall and Rollins) don’t think they’re going to come in just because of their pedigree that they’re going to necessarily play in front of anybody else. That’s not how it works in our room. The best guys play. I’m excited with their skill-set and I’m excited to add them to the room, but we have a lot of work to do. This is a young room. We have a lot of work in front of us. I understand the challenge that’s in front of myself and this group but we’re going to answer it. I’m very confident in the men that I’m working with.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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