Camp analysis: NFC North defensive backs
Starters – LCB Tim Jennings, RCB Charles Tillman, FS Chris Conte, SS Major Wright. Backups – CB D.J. Moore, CB Kelvin Hayden, S Craig Steltz, S Brandon Hardin, CB Jonathan Wilhite, S Anthony Walters, CB Isaiah Frey, CB Greg McCoy, CB Donovan Warren, S Trevor Coston, S Jeremy Jones.
Tillman has the size, strength and toughness that makes him an ideal Cover-2 corner in the Bears' scheme. He went to his first Pro Bowl last season at 31. Jennings is just 5-8, but plays bigger and tougher than his size. He was re-signed, but the Bears would like to upgrade there. Both safety positions have been a revolving door during Smith's tenure. Conte showed promise as a rookie last year, starting nine games, while 2010 third-rounder Major Wright has been inconsistent and frequently nicked up. Wright appears to have the physical tools for the job but must stay healthy to be able to master the mental and technical aspects of the job. Moore is undersized but always seems to be around the ball, and his lack of size doesn't prevent him from playing with an attitude. Reinforcements were added to a unit in need of improvement, but it remains to be seen if the news guys – veterans Hayden and Wilhite, along with rookie Hardin – do more than provide depth.
Starters – LCB Chris Houston, S Louis Delmas, S Amari Spievey. Backups – CB Jacob Lacey, CB Alphonso Smith, CB Bill Bentley, CB Jonte Green, CB Chris Greenwood, CB Justin Miller, S Erik Coleman, S Sean Smith, S John Wendling, S Don Carey, S Ricardo Silva, S Ross Weaver.
The Lions weren't able to land any marquee draft picks or free agents to shore up this troubled position. What they did instead was go for quantity. The hope is that from the three drafted rookie corners – Bentley, Green and Greenwood – they will, at the very least, improve their depth. They were very confident about starting Aaron Berry at right corner, but a second arrest during the offseason was too much for the team and the Lions released him. He was essentially the right corner at the end of last season with Eric Wright moving into the slot. That was the direction they were going, even if they could have re-signed Wright. Lacey, a free-agent signee, has the inside track on either the nickel corner spot or Berry's former position. Veteran Smith will have to beat out one of the rookies to keep his roster spot, which could be tough because Smith does not contribute on special teams. It's a make-or-break camp for Spievey. The safety spot opposite Delmas is his to lose, but veterans Smith and Coleman, as well as Carey, will give him no margin for error.
Green Bay Packers
Starters – LCB Charles Woodson, RCB Tramon Williams, FS Morgan Burnett. Backups – CB Sam Shields, CB Jarrett Bush, CB Davon House, CB Casey Hayward, CB Brandian Ross, CB Otis Merrill, CB Dion Turner, S M.D. Jennings, S Jerron McMillian, S Anthony Levine, S Sean Richardson, S Micah Pellerin.
McCarthy isn't a fan of circulating depth charts in the offseason, so the Packers don't have one – at least for public consumption. That has piqued the curiosity of fervent and casual observers of the team alike as they wait on what will come of replacing Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, whom the team released amid concerns about his wanting to attempt a comeback from a severe neck injury sustained last season. Many assume Woodson is the logical choice, given his hybrid style of play the last few seasons. An all-out position switch for Woodson, 35, seemed far-fetched at one point because he's valuable as a cover guy in the slot, but with the release of starting strong safety Charlie Peprah, all bets are off. The team-high 18 missed tackles by Woodson last season isn't conducive for a safety to anchor the box as the Packers look to the emerging Burnett to assume Collins' vital and effective role of patrolling the back end. Peprah played more than 1,000 snaps after the injury to Collins but was a liability in coverage. Jennings, who got in on defense for all of 10 plays as an undrafted rookie last season, and McMillian, a fourth-round draft pick this year, are contenders for a role if Woodson winds up playing some safety. As much as Woodson, Williams and then-undrafted rookie Shields dazzled as a trio in the Super Bowl-winning 2010 season, diminished production by Williams (in part because of nerve damage in a shoulder) and Shields (10 missed tackles) last season left the Packers with some warts at cornerback. Shields is on shaky ground to remain the nickel back and may wind up being overtaken by veteran role player Bush, a revamped House (zero plays on defense as a rookie in 2011) or Hayward, an intriguing second-round draft pick this year.
Starters – LCB Antoine Winfield, RCB Chris Cook, FS Harrison Smith, SS Mistral Raymond. Backups – CB Chris Carr, CB Zack Bowman, CB Josh Robinson, CB Brandon Burton, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Nicholas Taylor, CB Corey Gatewood, CB Bobby Felder, S Eric Frampton, S Jamarca Sanford, S Robert Blanton, S Andrew Sendejo.
Winfield is 35 and coming off a season in which he missed 11 games. He's not concerned because his injuries last season (neck, collarbone) weren't to his legs. Cook missed 10 games last year as he battled an arrest and charges for felony domestic assault. Cook was cleared of the charges during the offseason and won't be suspended. So this is the year he finally lives up to the hype. A giant corner at 6-2, 212, Cook was a second-round pick in 2010. Injuries essentially wiped out any chance of him making an impact as a rookie. He was reaching his potential as a big cover corner last year when he was arrested before the seventh game of the season. The backup corners have been immensely upgraded. Robinson, a third-round pick, ran the fastest 40 time at the NFL Scouting Combine this year. Bowman and Carr are legitimate NFL contributors who were signed in free agency. By trading back into the first round to take Smith at No. 29, the Vikings found at least one new starter at safety. He appears to have the size, speed and instincts to play the position better than anyone the Vikings have had since Darren Sharper left after the 2008 season. Raymond, a rookie sixth-round pick a year ago, got valuable starting experience because of injuries down the stretch in 2011. But he'll have to win back the job in training camp. Sanford will be in the mix, but only because he's the most experienced starter. He's essentially a special teams player who has had to start because the position has been woefully undermanned in recent years. Frampton returns as a special teams leader. Blanton, a converted cornerback, could sneak into the strong safety battle. Helping him is the fact he played alongside Smith at Notre Dame. Sherels, the undrafted surprise who made the practice squad in 2010 and then became the team's top punt returner in 2011, has promise at corner but might be caught in a numbers situation this year. The Vikings invested a fifth-round pick in Burton a year ago. But he also failed to gain the trust of the coaches despite a desperate need for corners a year ago.
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