Battle of the North: Defensive backs

While the NFC North added some talent to its defensive backfields via the draft and free agency, most of the starters are already determined. However, nearly every team has a battle at nickel back or a question about one of its starters. Beat writers from around the division assess the situation for the club they cover.


Starters — LCB Charles Tillman, RCB Nate Vasher, SS Kevin Payne, FS Corey Graham. Backups — S Danieal Manning, CB D.J. Moore, CB Zackary Bowman, CB Trumaine McBride, S Craig Steltz, S Josh Bullocks.

Tillman isn't a shutdown corner, but he matches up well with big receivers and supports effectively vs. the run because of his size and physical nature. Vasher has slumped badly in two injury-riddled seasons since he went to the Pro Bowl after a stellar ‘06 campaign. He needs to play much better to justify his salary and roster spot. Payne led the team with four interceptions last season and was second in tackles, so he appears set on the strong side. Weak side is a crapshoot at this point with several players in the mix, although converted CB Corey Graham possesses the cover skills that most of the Bears' safeties lack, and he is physical enough to make the switch successfully. Manning is the best athlete of the bunch, but his production has never caught up to his potential. He wasn't bad as the nickel back in ‘08. If he can overcome a tendency to make mental mistakes, he could regain the starting spot he held his first two years in the league. Moore seems like a good fit at nickel and could eventually become a starter. Bowman has the size Moore lacks but has been crippled by injuries going back to his days at Nebraska. If he can stay healthy, he has the tools to challenge for a starting job down the line. Steltz saw extensive time as a backup last year as a rookie when injuries sidelined other players. It wouldn't be a total shock if he wound up as a starter. McBride is undersized but feisty and has been an adequate fill-in when called upon. It remains to be seen how much is left in the tanks of veteran Bullocks.


Starters — LCB Phillip Buchanon, FS Louis Delmas, SS Daniel Bullocks, RCB Anthony Henry. Backups — CB Eric King, CB Chris Roberson, CB Ramzee Robinson, CB Antonio Smith, CB Keith Smith, CB Dexter Wynn, S Tra Battle, S LaMarcus Hicks, S Marquand Manuel, S Kalvin Pearson, S Stuart Schweigert.

The Lions have overhauled their secondary again. Buchanon has an opportunity to be a playmaker and needs to haul in more interceptions. Delmas, a second-round pick, is a guided missile in the middle that picked up the defense quickly in the offseason. Bullocks can hit hard but must make more plays more consistently. Henry will start out at corner, and his performance will determine whether he will move to safety. Keith Smith could be someone to watch, because he has good cover skills that weren't always on display when the Lions ran the Tampa-2. Manuel and Schweigert give the Lions backup safeties with significant starting experience. Manuel could end up starting.


Starters — LCB Charles Woodson, RCB Al Harris, FS Nick Collins, SS Atari Bigby. Backups — CB Tramon Williams, CB Will Blackmon, CB Pat Lee, CB Brandon Underwood, CB Joe Porter, CB Trevor Ford, S Anthony Smith, S Aaron Rouse, S Jarrett Bush, S Charlie Peprah.

The implementation of the 3-4, in theory, won't play to the Packers' strength of recent years with arguably the top bump-and-run corner tandem in Woodson and Harris. Capers plans to sprinkle in zone coverage, which hasn't been a good fit for Harris. Woodson, on the other hand, has excelled in a freelancing role — 19 interceptions, four touchdown returns in three years with the team. Both players are reaching the twilight of their careers in their early 30s, but the Packers have a wealth of potentially good young replacements with emerging nickel back Williams, Blackmon, Lee and Underwood, a sixth-round pick this year. Depth also is good at safety, bolstered by the free-agent signing of Smith. The onetime Pittsburgh Steeler is well-versed in the 3-4 and will be out to unseat either Collins or Bigby for a starting job in camp. Both starters are behind the 8-ball with the scheme. Bigby didn't practice the entire offseason as he recovered from late-season ankle surgery. Collins, coming off a breakthrough season that earned him a Pro Bowl spot, stayed away most of the offseason in an effort to get a contract extension, which hasn't come to pass.


Starters — LCB Antoine Winfield, SS Tyrell Johnson, FS Madieu Williams, RCB Cedric Griffin. Backups — S Husain Abdullah, CB Asher Allen, S Colt Anderson, S Eric Frampton, S De'von Hall, CB Marcus McCauley, CB Karl Paymah, CB Derrick Roberson, S Jamarca Sanford, CB Benny Sapp, CB Marcus Walker.

Winfield, coming off the first Pro Bowl appearance of his 11-year career, just received a five-year contract extension to keep him happy. The Vikings want it that way, given that he is one of the anchors of the defense, but the issue is that he's 32 years old and his top-end value as a cornerback will soon be nearing its end. Allen might be the long-term replacement, but the third-round pick from Georgia still must prove himself as a rookie. There are no contract issues with Griffin, either, who showed big improvement throughout the course of last season and signed a long-term extension in March. Johnson, entering his second season, takes over for Darren Sharper, whom the Vikings made no attempt to re-sign after 2008. Johnson got valuable experience starting the first seven games of last season while Williams recovered from a neck injury suffered in training camp. Williams is beginning his second season with the Vikings — and sixth in the NFL overall — and should get the benefit of being healthy for the entire year. The best competition in the defensive backfield will be for the nickel role. Candidates will include Allen, Sapp and Paymah, who was signed as a free agent from Denver. Charles Gordon, last year's nickel back before a gruesome season-ending leg injury, was released before the start of training camp. Last year, Sapp stepped in as his replacement.

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