No doubt, it's the latter group that Packer fans are hoping they'll be seeing from the get-go. Green Bay's secondary coach, Kurt Schottenheimer, sees no reason his unit's progress won't continue.
"Throughout the last ten games, we had tremendous improvement and were one of the best in the league," Schottenheimer explained. "From a statistical standpoint, we started getting more interceptions and gave up just a little over 150 yards per game passing over that period of time. We're very pleased with the progress we made in that stretch of the season. You don't want to start out poorly, but the fact that you kept getting better throughout the course of the season and, quite frankly, performed as well as anybody, we now have the philosophy of ‘Let's learn from the good things we did, let's learn from the bad things and let's start fast this year.'"
If the Packers' secondary gets off to a fast start this year, a healthy dose of strong competition may have a lot to do with it.
"Based on the off-season program, the performance of all of the young defensive backs, at the corner position as well as safety, I think there is competition, there's no question about that," Schottenheimer said.
At the corners, veteran starters Al Harris and Charles Woodson will be pushed by newly-acquired Frank Walker, Will Blackmon, Patrick Dendy, Jarrett Bush and Tramon Williams. Harris and Woodson must keep their play at a very high level, and even lift it up a notch. Their veteran leadership is absolutely crucial to the development of this young group of DBs. Woodson led the unit with eight interceptions last season and, as he told Schottenheimer after a recent film session, "Hell, coach, I could have had another eight."
Harris makes a living shutting down the opponent's best receiver week after week and he'll be expected to keep raising the bar.
Both Harris and Woodson have worked extremely hard in the team's off-season program and Schottenheimer likes what he sees.
"We're very pleased with the focus that these guys have. Al Harris is in great shape and Charles is clearly in better shape this year than he was last year at this time. ‘Wood' has a tremendous ability to make plays on the ball and great anticipation. He's a very instinctive player. Meanwhile, Al Harris is one of the most consistent players, play in and play out, in the National Football League. You know he's got a great chance of winning each play as it develops."
At safety, there are some genuine question marks. Which Nick Collins will we see? The young free safety who seemed to suffer from the Sophomore Jinx for much of the season, or the big play guy who took it to the house for a 55-yard TD against the Bears?
"There's no question about his upside and where he has an opportunity to go as a performer in this league," Schottenheimer said. "The only thing that he's lacked until the Chicago game was making plays on the ball, making the big plays. He's a great competitor but I want him to be a little more selfish. I want him to be more aggressive to the ball and I think he's gaining confidence that way."
For his part, Collins knows he's got to be more consistent in his play.
"I need work everywhere," said Collins. "I'm not picking any one certain thing that I need to work on. I need to work on all aspects of the game and go from there. I'm just a hard worker and I like to be around the ball. You can't make things happen unless you're around the ball, so I try to be there as often as possible."
Question number two: Will the strong safety slot be a weakness again this season?
Veteran Marquand Manuel was supposed to be the answer but he wound up getting torched several times and never quite seemed to get into a groove. He's going to be challenged by Marviel Underwood who's coming back from an injury, as well as Tyrone Culver and Atari Bigby.
But Schottenheimer cautions those critics who have thrown Manuel under the bus.
"Marquand got beat up on some things that weren't his problem last year," Schottenheimer said. "But people took it and ran with it. We were very poor in the first six ballgames. We were not a very good secondary at that time because we didn't do the things necessary to play winning football. I know that the groin injury he sustained in the Super Bowl, and later the calf muscle he pulled, affected his ability to get into top shape early in the season. But he's moving well now so we expect another good performance."
Which secondary will we see in '07? We won't know until they start hitting for real in September. But count Schottenheimer among those who expect the aggressive, ball-hawking secondary that showed up in the latter part of last season to make their presence felt from the very start of this campaign.
Tom Andrews is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.