Two-a-Days: Cornerbacks

Our two-positions-a-day training camp preview continues with a position group that's in flux because of injuries. We tell you about their strengths and weaknesses, and use our 20-20 general manager's goggles to find better (and worse) options.

Cornerback

Probable starter:

Charles Woodson.

Depth:

Pat Lee, Brandon Underwood. (Note: There is not a specific backup at cornerback. The players named under "Depth" are listed for ease of breaking down the roster.)

The lowdown

There's no better starting point than the reigning defensive player of the year. What Woodson has done since arriving in Green Bay is literally unbelievable. In eight seasons in Oakland, Woodson picked off 17 passes and returned two of them for touchdowns. In four seasons in Green Bay, Woodson has 28 interceptions, seven of which he returned for touchdowns (along with a fumble for an eighth score). He's also a guru for the young defensive backs and arguably the smartest man among the defensive players in the locker room. Whatever he's lost athletically over the years, he's made up for tenfold with an unparalleled knowledge of what the opposing offense is going to do on any given down-and-distance situation. In our magazine cover story last year, Woodson talked about knowing which few plays a team will run on, say, third-and-9, and then making an informed gamble based on his film study and well-honed instincts. That was evident last season, when he had a career-high and league-co-leading nine interceptions — three of which he returned for touchdowns — along with four forced fumbles. Whether it's matching up against an elite receiver, shutting down a top tight end, moving into the slot in nickel or blitzing, Woodson is coordinator Dom Capers' right-hand man. Woodson turns 34 in October. How long can he play at such an elite level? Depending on the health of veteran Al Harris, Lee and Underwood could be battling to be the third cornerback. That's actually more of a "starting" position than nose tackle, with the third corner playing about 60 percent of the snaps. Lee, a second-round pick in 2008, has played only a couple-dozen snaps on defense in his career and missed all of last season with a hyperextended knee. He had a strong offseason and provides the physical presence the Packers like in their corners. Underwood, a sixth-round pick last year, is 6-foot-1 — just like Lee — but is rangy and with good ball skills. His maturity level is in question after the incident in Wisconsin Dells.

Quoteworthy

Woodson, on last season: "It's not enough. We've got to do more. Last season was fun. It was a great season, especially individually with a lot of accolades and awards and such. But the mission is still there, and that's to win a championship. What I learn from the previous seasons is that whatever we were doing then is not enough. We need to do more."

Could be better

At No. 60 (the fourth-to-last pick of the second round) in the 2008 draft, the Packers selected Lee, setting off a run of corners that saw seven cover men go in the next 19 picks. None of them are stars, but at least the Giants' Terrell Thomas (No. 63) is a starter and has stayed healthy.

Could be worse

Apparently that's general manager Ted Thompson's belief. Not only did he not draft a cornerback, but the team moved Will Blackmon to safety.


Cornerback

Probable starter:

Al Harris or Tramon Williams.

Depth:

Josh Bell, Jarrett Bush, Sam Shields, D.J. Clark. (Note: There is not a specific backup at cornerback. The players named under "Depth" are listed for ease of breaking down the roster.)


Al Harris
Diamond Images
The lowdown

Will this even be a battle? Harris is coming off a terrible knee injury sustained on Nov. 22. He's shed blood, sweat and tears while on the comeback trail. It will be interesting to see if No. 31 is on the field or on the sideline when camp begins on Saturday. If he's not on the field, will he get on the field in time to beat out Williams? Harris, who turns 36 in December, had started 175 consecutive games until a spleen injury forced him out of the lineup for four games in 2008. Then the knee last year held Harris out for the final six games. Harris proved the skeptics wrong last year by adjusting beautifully to the new defensive scheme, which called for more zone and less bump-and-run. He only gave up one big play all season, a touchdown on third-and-long against San Francisco. Can he possibly return to play at a high enough level to contribute, either as a starter or the third corner? Williams looked like an above-average starter in 2008, when he picked off five passes and started nine games. He didn't play nearly as well in 2009, when he had four interceptions with 10 starts. In a league starved for cornerbacks, Williams needs to be locked up to a long-term deal rather than risk losing him in free agency. But ideally, his role would be as the third corner, because he is a poor tackler, has trouble finding the ball on deep routes and gives up more big plays than he makes. If the Packers go with six corners (or need a fifth if Harris isn't ready), Bell holds a slight edge after a solid offseason. Bush is strictly a special-teamer, and that could be the role for the ultra-fast Shields while he learns the ropes on defense. A lot is riding on Harris because of the trickle-down effect of his absence.

Quoteworthy

Harris, on watching the defense last year: "That was hard, the bits and pieces that I did watch. It's still hard to watch, even watching practice. But that's a part of it, and that fuels you, to watch the guys go out there and work, to watch your friends play cohesive as a group. So, that helps in my rehab, I could go in and work on range of motion or work on backpedaling, breaking, stuff like that."

Could be better

There's no denying that Bryan Bulaga will play a key role now and in the future. But for the sake of the secondary, the Packers gambled in the first round by passing on Devin McCourty (Patriots), Kyle Wilson (Jets), Patrick Robinson (Saints) and Chris Cook (Vikings), all of whom went between picks 27 and 34.

Could be worse

Where would the Packers be without Williams? With so many teams using three- and four-receiver sets, there aren't enough good cornerbacks to go around. Yet Williams went undrafted in 2006 and was deemed unfit to make the final roster of the 5-year-old Houston Texans, which had a cumulative 18-46 record. Williams was signed to the Packers' practice squad on Nov. 29, 2006.

On a scale of 1 to 10 ...

With a 10 being Charles Woodson against anybody, a 5 being Mason Crosby from 45 yards and the ball on the right hash and a 1 being Allen Barbre against anybody, this position group rates a 7.5.

This is a tough position group to grade because there are so many unknowns. Can Harris contribute? Can Lee finally stay healthy? Will Underwood take a big step forward in Year 2? At least there are options, so it's not like this position group is a lost cause after being demolished by top-flight passing attacks last year. If Harris returns to form, Williams drops down to No. 3 and Lee and/or Underwood emerge to be the No. 4, the Packers could have one of the best cornerback corps in the NFL. Then again, it could be a repeat of last year's flops against Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner.


Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.


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 and Facebook under Bill Huber.


Packer Report Top Stories