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An Embarrassment of Riches?

by Mike Conklin

E-mail: mikeconklin@packerpedia.com
June 11, 2012

 

Last year, the Packers pass defense wasn't just the worst in the NFL. It was the worst in NFL history. If an opposing quarterback threw for 300 yards against them it was just another day at the office, because that was the average number of passing yards given up per game (299.8).

It's not fair or accurate to place all the blame on any one area of the defense, because every level of the defense played a part. But when you think pass defense, the first players that come to mind are usually the cornerbacks. They are the players that are left on an island against the receivers. They are the players that the camera focuses on after they give up a big play.

We got to see a lot of close-up shots of those players last year, as the Packers gave up an astonishing 71 plays of 20 yards or more. And of those plays, 10 of them were for 40 yards or more. In past years the Packers were a bend-but-don't-break defense. Last year they forgot about the bend-but-don't part.

In spite of all that, could it be possible that the Packers are on the verge of having an embarrassment of riches at the cornerback position?

They are stacked with young talent, oozing with potential. There's an old saying that "potential gets coaches fired," but I'd be willing to bet that cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt would rather have that than the alternative. He has been given a lot to work with, and the competition for playing time should be fierce. This is a group that will be watched closely as the season approaches. Last year, the Packers kept six cornerbacks and it is reasonable to think that will be the case again. Because it is a position of such importance in the today's pass-happy NFL, we wanted to take an in-depth look at the parties involved:

The Hall of Famer:
Charles Woodson
Height: 6'1" Weight: 202 15th Season

Woodson is the unquestioned leader of the defense. The other players on the team revere him. As a traditional cornerback, he is not the same player now as he was when he won the Defensive Player of the Year, but he still tilts the field. The Packers will scheme to avoid him being isolated on the outside where it is most obvious that he is starting to lose a step, and we are likely to see him in the slot and near the line of scrimmage where he is still able to do a lot of damage. Will he play safety? Maybe. Although neither McCarthy nor Capers will tip their hand, the speculation in the media is that the Packers may line up in their Corner Okie defense (3 cornerbacks with only 1 safety) much more often, which would make Woodson a de facto safety. It's almost irrelevant. No matter what you call him, Woodson plays all over, and is one of the centerpieces of Dom Capers' defense. “Charles will be doing a lot of things for us,” Capers said. “We’ve got a lot of different personnel groups. More so than anybody else, he plays all over the field. Up to this time, he’s played corner, he’s played nickel, he’s played dime, he’s played safety, he’s played linebacker. He’s played them all. I think that what we’ll do is we’ll see where he is and we’ll use him as a matchup guy, and that changes from week to week.”

The Overachiever:
Tramon Williams
Height: 5'11" Weight: 191 6th Season

In the 2006 draft, there were 27 cornerbacks chosen. Tramon Williams was not one of them. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Houston Texans, but he couldn't make the team as a rookie and was cut at the end of training camp. Months went by, and he still didn't have a home until the Packers took a flier on him and signed him to their practice squad for the final month of the season. A testament to the progress that can be made between a player's first and second seasons, he was the surprise of training camp in 2007 and made the team. He continued to progress, and in the Super Bowl season of 2010 he emerged into one of the best cornerbacks in the entire league. In the playoffs that year, he sealed the victory over the Eagles with a leaping interception in the end zone with 33 seconds left on the clock. The following week, he ripped the heart out of the Falcons with a pick-six just before halftime. He was at the top of his game, and then in the season opener last year he injured his shoulder and just wasn't the same after that. Now, with an offseason of rehab and recovery under his belt, he will look to return to his previous form...one of the best in the NFL.

The Enigma:
Sam Shields
Height: 5'11" Weight: 184 3rd Season

Sam Shields has it all...elite speed, great hips, ball skills. He was as raw as it gets coming out of college after playing offense most of his career, but he kept making play after play in training camp and eventually earned the all-important role of third cornerback. He continued to progress through his rookie year, during which Joe Whitt had this to say about him: "Write it down. Sam is going to be one of the top corners in this league in two years." Now, two years later, Shields is at a crossroads. He suffered a sophomore slump, and regressed badly in 2011. Slight of build by NFL standards, his lack of physical play was glaring at times last season. The good news is that early signs this offseason seem to indicate that he is playing better, and he has gone on record stating that he will play more physically. The coaches seem to still have faith in him, as he has been running with the #1 defense during OTA's. If he can re-dedicate himself to his craft and build on what he did as an inexperienced rookie in 2010, he still has a chance to fulfill those lofty predictions Coach Whitt made not long ago.

The Star-Crossed:
Jarrett Bush
Height: 6'0" Weight: 200 7th Season

Fans appreciate what Jarrett Bush brings to the special teams, but they're scared to death when he plays on defense. The coaches, however, seem to have a higher view of him and wouldn't be averse to expanding his role. "I like him because he's got a defensive temperament," said Dom Capers. "Guys that can tackle, guys that are tough, physical guys, I don't know that you can ever have enough of them. I think he could do a good job for us in nickel, I really do." Joe Whitt took it a step further, saying "Is he a Charles Woodson in the slot? No, but who is? I will fight and die with Jarrett Bush. I would." Bush is a gritty, determined, ultra-competetive player. Whitt alluded to the fact that he is kind of a poor man's Woodson, because he can line up all over and has the ability to rush the quarterback from the slot unlike many of his teammates. He has come up big a few times, most notably in the Super Bowl when Woodson went down. But for every good play he makes, he seems to get beat in big moments, and that is what fans think of the most. Even so, he seems to be solidly entrenched in the team's plans, as evidenced by the fact that they just re-signed him for three years at $5.25 million.

The Up-and-Comer:
Davon House
Height: 6'0" Weight: 195 2nd Season

The Packers preach that they are a draft-and-develop team, and look for players to make great strides between their first and second seasons. That is where Davon House finds himself now, after a quiet rookie season hampered by the lockout and injuries. He had great measurables coming out of New Mexico State, and after a blistering 4.35 40-yard dash at his Pro Day it looked like he could be drafted as high as the second round. He slid to the end of the fourth round, where the Packers snatched him up. He had a few impressive moments during a training camp that was cut short due to injuries, but he just wasn't ready to contribute last year. This offseason there have been several articles about him by beat reporters, with the most glowing comment by Vic Ketchman when he said that if he were to name an MVP of OTA's, House may be that player. Joe Whitt's comments, which hold much more weight, also reflect his progress: “Davon has made a huge step forward from Day 1 when we first got here last year until today. He’s probably grown more than anybody else. He has the skill set. He just has to bring it and detail his work and continue to get better.” My personal observation during a recent OTA practice was also that he was one of the players that stood out. He's bigger than most of the other corners, and he appeared to cover well during 11-on-11's. He looks the part, and if his play can match once the pads are on, the Packers will be pleased with their depth.

The Rook:
Casey Hayward
Height: 5'11" Weight: 192 Rookie

The Packers thought highly enough of Casey Hayward to trade up to get him. They must have had a pretty high rating on him, and apparently they were not alone. In the days leading up to the draft, several insiders reported that the Patriots were considering taking him with the 31st selection, and the Broncos were even linked to him with the 25th pick. When you look at his college production, it is hard to argue. Last year, receivers he covered were targeted 82 times, and he only gave up 16 receptions for 114 yards. That was a completion percentage of 19.5%, best in the nation. And even when they weren't throwing the ball his way, he made plays. During his college career he had 31 touchdown saving tackles after a teammate gave up a big play, and also racked up 18 tackles for loss. We don't know yet if he will be able to play as a rookie, but he should have no problem grasping the playbook. Bob Shoop, his defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt, said, "He has that weird kind of smart where he has that savvy and instinct where he can just see things as they develop on the football field and put himself in a position to be successful. That was really neat. Trust me when I tell you this, that wasn’t him being coached. That guy has the ‘it’ factor.” The Packers are hoping he can translate "it" to the pro game, and if he does he has a chance to get on the field in dime or even nickel packages.

The Forgotten Man:
Brandian Ross
Height: 6'0" Weight: 191 1st Season

In early August last year, thousands of fans in Lambeau had to scramble through their roster lists to try to figure out who just intercepted Aaron Rodgers and returned it for a touchdown. They also looked to see who #39 was a few plays later, when he broke up a long pass intended for Jordy Nelson. That player turned out to be Brandian Ross, and he continued to make an impression throughout training camp. For a while there was talk that he was a dark horse candidate to make the roster, but he ended up being cut and signed to the practice squad. All Ross has to do is look across the cornerbacks meeting room and see Tramon Williams to realize that it's possible to make the leap from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. Last year Joe Whitt said that Ross was possibly the smartest rookie he ever coached, so surely he is smart enough to know that he will have to have a mind-blowing training camp to have any chance of making the roster. But stranger things have happened.

The Camp Bodies:
Otis Merrill
Height: 5'11" Weight: 188 Rookie
Dion Turner
Height: 5'11" Weight: 194 Rookie

It is unlikely that either of these players has a realistic chance to make the roster, but with a solid showing a practice squad invite is possible. The Packers must have seen something they liked in Merrill, because he was one of those tryout players that were invited to the rookie camp before he was signed to a contract. He was a top high school recruit out of Ohio that started his college career at Wisconsin, so the fact that he was recruited by a big time school shows that he has physical skills. As for Turner, he only played football in high school for one year, but still earned a full-ride scholarship at Southern Utah. He played in a small conference, but rose to the top as he was a two-time all-Great West Conference player. Both of these players will have a steep learning curve, but will be trying to earn a spot on the practice squad. And as we all know, a leap from the practice squad up to the 53-man roster is always a possibility.

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