With holes to plug on the defensive front seven, the Packers are fortunate to be strong in the secondary.
Not that the defensive backs group doesn't have its own list of questions, though. Can Al Harris (34 years old) and Charles Woodson (who will turn 33 in October) remain top-flight cornerbacks for another season? And maybe just as pressing a question entering this offseason, how much confidence do the Packers have in young cornerbacks Tramon Williams, Will Blackmon and Patrick Lee, who would move up the pecking order should something happen to one of the established veterans?
Still, assuming safety Nick Collins' superlative 2008 season wasn't a fluke and safety Atari Bigby's injury-plagued 2008 season was a fluke, the Packers are in fine shape in the secondary compared to their NFC North rivals. That's assuming, of course, they can adapt to Dom Capers' new defense.
The Chicago Bears have decided to part ways with safety Mike Brown, the Minnesota Vikings aren't expected to retain Darren Sharper and the Detroit Lions decided to release their only defensive back who had an interception.
Here is a look at how the NFC North's defensive backfields stacked up at the end of the season.
Packers: Starters — RCB Al Harris, SS Aaron Rouse, FS Nick Collins, LCB Charles Woodson. Backups — CB Tramon Williams, CB Will Blackmon, CB/S Jarrett Bush, S Charlie Peprah, CB Joe Porter. Injured reserve — S Atari Bigby, CB Pat Lee.
The unit flourished as bandits, particularly in the first half of the season. All 22 of the team's interceptions were by the hands of the defensive backs. Leading the way with a co-NFC-high seven apiece were the team's lone Pro Bowl choices, Woodson and Collins.
Woodson, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, skipped the trip to Hawaii — he was replaced by Harris — after enduring a full season in which he played with a broken toe. He played magnificently, breaking up a team-best 20 passes. Two of his interceptions were returned for touchdowns, but Collins trumped him with three picks for scores a year after having zero interceptions. Collins struggled down the stretch with his help coverage and pursuit, yet the breakout fulfilled the high expectations the team had for him when it took him in the second round in 2005.
The Packers had a franchise-record-tying six touchdowns on interception returns, highlighted by Rouse's 99-yard pick of a pass by the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning and dash to the opposite end zone. Rouse, though, was erratic in the opportunities he had to start for an injured Bigby, who was plagued by a bum ankle all season and ultimately went on injured reserve near the end because of a shoulder injury. Bigby underwent surgery for the ankle and figures to be OK by training camp.
Harris is under contract but not a given to be back. He suffered a career-threatening spleen injury in Week 3 but missed only four games. Harris' coverage skills in the final weeks of the season left a lot to be desired. Williams did a satisfactory job as the starting fill-in for Harris but was exploited frequently in downfield coverage back as the nickel back the second half of the season.
Tillman had good size and is physical for a corner and a willing run supporter with great toughness. But he is far from a shutdown corner, although he does match up fairly well with bigger wideouts.
Graham took over for Vasher, who has become extremely injury prone, ineffective and soft. Vasher missed eight games with two hand injuries after missing 12 games in 2007 with a groin injury. Even when he was healthy last season he didn't play nearly as well as in the past, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him waived to create some cap space. Graham played fairly well, and he's much more physical than Vasher and has the good size the Bears like in their corners.
Brown was unable to finish the regular season healthy for the fifth straight year, including four trips to I.R., but he started 15 games, and the Bears have decided to part ways with the free agent. Brown lacks speed, but he was the heart, soul and brains of the defensive backfield and an emotional team leader, and the Bears' decision on Friday hit his teammates hard.
Payne is a big hitter who had a team-best four interceptions and was second in tackles, but he is not very effective in coverage. Manning played nickel most of the season after starting at safety his first two seasons in the NFL. He's a tremendous athlete, but his skills haven't always translated to success on the field. He has too much talent not to have a role somewhere, but no one has figured out where that is yet. McBride and Hamilton have started games in the past when injuries hit, but their roles are as extra corners in passing situations and on special teams. Steltz filled in when Brown was nicked and showed signs of being a potential starter.
Lions: Starters — LCB Leigh Bodden, RCB Travis Fisher, FS Daniel Bullocks, SS Dwight Smith. Backups — CB Ramzee Robinson, CB Dexter Wynn, CB Chris Roberson, CB Keith Smith, CB Stanley Wilson, S Gerald Alexander, S Kalvin Pearson, S Stuart Schweigert, S LaMarcus Hicks.
The Lions intercepted only four passes this season, an NFL record low for a 16-game season, and only one interception was by a defensive back. Bodden was unhappy because he wasn't handed a starting job and fell well short of expectations. He's unhappier now, because he was one of six players released by the Lions last week.
Kelly and Dwight Smith had nothing left. Fisher, Keith Smith and company didn't make plays, either. Pearson looked like a good role player, but he was overmatched when asked to play a lot. Bullocks showed flashes, like when he laid a lick on Adrian Peterson, but he was arguably the worst player on the field in the season-finale at Green Bay. No one distinguished himself in this group.
Vikings: Starters — LCB Antoine Winfield, SS Darren Sharper, FS Madieu Williams, RCB Cedric Griffin. Backups — CB Marcus McCauley, CB Benny Sapp, S Tyrell Johnson, S Husain Abdullah, S Eric Frampton. Injured reserve — CB Charles Gordon, S Michael Boulware.
Williams was another of the Vikings' big free-agent pickups last offseason, but he missed the first seven games because of a neck injury suffered early in training camp. This enabled second-round rookie Tyrell Johnson to get plenty of experience as a starter. That should pay in 2009 given that it appears unlikely Sharper will return. The veteran will be an unrestricted free agent and with the Vikings likely to make a significant addition at quarterback, money could be saved by going from Sharper to Johnson.
Winfield, elected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his 10-year career, will be entering the final season of his contract in 2009. He only had two interceptions this season but nonetheless played well and continued to be an incredibly hard-hitting corner given that he is only 5-9, 180 pounds.
Griffin, meanwhile, showed improvement as the season progressed. The third-year player was picked on early by opponents but seemed to gain confidence. To his credit, he did not give up many big plays. Williams didn't do much to impress from a statistical standpoint but it was hard to ignore the fact the Vikings were 7-2 after he returned.
Sapp, who will be a free agent, made a contribution in his first season with the Vikings by assuming the nickel back role after Gordon was lost for the season because of a dislocated ankle. McCauley, though, all but disappeared after seeing extensive duty in his rookie season in 2007. His future with the team appears uncertain at best and it would not be surprising if the Vikings look to add depth at cornerback this offseason. Abdullah and Frampton were used on special teams.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.