Assessing the North: Defensive backs
Starters – LCB Tim Jennings, RCB Charles Tillman, SS Major Wright, FS Chris Conte. Backups – CB D.J. Moore, SS Craig Steltz, CB Zack Bowman, CB Corey Graham, S Brandon Meriweather.
Jennings was briefly benched in favor of Bowman late in the season, but the undersized Jennings is the better player. What he lacks in size and great cover ability, he makes up for with toughness and experience. Tillman made his first Pro Bowl in his ninth NFL season. He's not a classic shutdown corner, but he's big and strong enough to match up with big receivers and tough enough to support against the run. He also has elevated stripping ball-carriers to an art form. He has 27 forced fumbles since 2003, the most among all defensive backs.
Wright can't seem to stay healthy to remain in the starting lineup for more than a few games, and he can't seem to avoid making mistakes like missed tackles and blown coverages that make observers wonder why he's starting in the first place. Conte showed great promise in nine starts at free safety, although an ankle/foot injury knocked him out of the final two games.
Moore has a knack for being around the ball – eight interceptions in the past two seasons – and his lack of size doesn't seem to be a hindrance. Steltz is an excellent, assignment-sound, in-the-box safety who doesn't have much cover ability. Bowman has fallen short in multiple chances to win a starting job but isn't bad as an extra DB. Graham made the Pro Bowl as a special teams coverage guy, and he deserves a better chance to win a starting job, which he might get as an unrestricted free agent. There's a reason the DB-challenged Patriots released big-hit, no-cover Meriweather.
Starters – LCB Chris Houston, RCB Eric Wright. FS Louis Delmas, SS Amari Spievey. Backups – CBs Aaron Berry, Alphonso Smith, Brandon McDonald, Don Carey; S Chris Harris, John Wendling, Ricardo Silva. Injured reserve – S Erik Coleman.
This will be a point of emphasis for GM Martin Mayhew this offseason. Houston had a career season (five interceptions, two touchdowns) but for the second straight season he was bothered by a dislocation of the same shoulder. He also had an MCL tear that cost him parts of three games. He has the talent to be a shut-down corner, but perhaps not the durability. On the right side, Wright had a mostly solid year (four interceptions, 73 tackles), but he may be best suited as a slot defender in the nickel package. He is also unrestricted and probably won't get the money he's looking for from the Lions.
Berry and Smith are both under contract and have shown flashes of brilliance. In a perfect world, they would be providing depth at corner next season, not starting. Carey is a special teams player and McDonald probably won't be back.
Durability is becoming a concern for Delmas, too. He plays so hard and recklessly, he's yet to play a season at full strength. Spievey, though he's come a long way in two seasons, still makes too many mistakes, often at critical moments. Wendling is a gunner on special teams and Silva, a rookie, was added to the 53-man roster as insurance when Delmas was injured.
The Lions will be looking to upgrade the strong safety and right cornerback spots this offseason.
Green Bay Packers
Starters - LCB Charles Woodson, RCB Tramon Williams, SS Charlie Peprah, FS Morgan Burnett. Backups - CB Sam Shields, CB Jarrett Bush, CB Pat Lee, CB Davon House, S M.D. Jennings. Injured reserve: S Nick Collins.
All in all, a miserable season for the Packers' secondary, which was a group of strength for the Super Bowl champions the previous season. The loss of Collins, a three-time Pro Bowl honoree and the "quarterback" of the secondary, to a career-threatening neck injury in Week 2 was immense. Peprah (five interceptions) is a nice veteran to have on the team, but he's not full-time-starter material, as evidenced by his multitude of breakdowns in coverage and missed tackles. Collins' absence also affected Burnett, who had to assume different responsibilities on the back end and wasn't nearly as effective as a playmaker after getting all three of his interceptions in the first three games. Still, Burnett produced 107 tackles and has a high ceiling after playing his first full season following an injury-shortened pro debut in 2010.
Woodson isn't slowing down at age 35, tying for the league lead with seven interceptions, but he can't be excused from the Packers' allowing the most passing yards (4,988) in NFL history. Williams and nickel back Shields each had four interceptions, but their downfield coverage skills regressed from last season and made them whipping boys for opposing quarterbacks to exploit. Bush also was a liability when periodically deployed as the dime back, though he and Lee were coverage aces on special teams. House, a fourth-round draft pick, had a lot of hype going into training camp as an accomplished cornerback in college, but the Al Harris lookalike (dreadlocks included) never appeared on defense during the season. Jennings, who made the team as an undrafted rookie, was a special-teams contributor.
Starters – LCB Asher Allen, RCB Cedric Griffin, FS Mistral Raymond, SS Jamarca Sanford. Backups – CB Benny Sapp, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Brandon Burton, CB Chris Cook, S Eric Frampton, S Jarrad Page, S Andrew Sendejo. Injured reserve – LCB Antoine Winfield, S Tyrell Johnson, FS Husain Abdullah.
This was, by far, the weakest unit on the team. Injuries and an overall lack of playmakers doomed the defense to the second-worst passer rating allowed (107.6) in NFL history. The team went a whopping nine games without an interception despite leading the league in sacks. The final tally of eight picks tied a franchise record for fewest in a season.
By the end of the season, Allen was the best defensive back. Under normal conditions, he'd be a dime back, at best. Griffin isn't expected back after a dismal season that saw him unable to return to form after tearing the ACL in both knees the past two seasons. Raymond, a rookie sixth-round draft pick, showed just how raw he is in five starts. Sanford is the only Day 1 starter that stayed healthy or didn't lose his job because of performance. But he proved to lack the instincts to play the position at a starting level. Sapp, a late-season stopgap, is a free agent who won't be re-signed. Page and Sendejo also have no future with the team. Sherels, a second-year pro who made the team as a returner, might make a good nickel back some day. He's got good instincts and above average hands.
Burton, a rookie, is raw and did nothing to gain the confidence of the coaching staff as injuries mounted around him. Cook, a big corner drafted in the second round in 2010, is the most talented DB on the roster, but his future with the team is uncertain because he faces felony domestic assault charges. His trial is expected to start in March. Winfield will be 35 next season, but he should return as a starter. He missed all but five games this season, but the good news is his injuries (neck, clavicle) weren't to his legs.
Frampton is one of the best special teams players, but doesn't get a whiff at safety. Johnson, an unrestricted free agent, was a major bust as the team's top pick (in the second round) in 2008. He's coming off surgery to repair a detached hamstring. He'll get a fresh start somewhere else. Abdullah is an unrestricted free agent who had four concussions the past two seasons, including two in 2011. The former undrafted free agent has built himself into an OK player, but he's far from a priority. The team needs to find playmakers at safety and corner.
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