Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson practices on June 12 during minicamp at Ray Nitschke Field. Woodson will be the second-oldest defensive back in the NFL this season. / File/Press-Gazette
Defensive backs roster
This is the third in an eight-part position-by-position look at the 2012 Green Bay Packers.
Wednesday: Defensive line
Today: Defensive back
Saturday: Offensive line
Monday: Running back
Tuesday: Receiver/tight end
Wednesday: Special teams
Over the last six seasons, Charles Woodson ranks second in the NFL in interceptions, behind only Asante Samuel.
It’s the same over the last three years, all with Woodson in the key playmaking role as a slot defender in coordinator Dom Capers’ nickel scheme.
But as good a playmaker as he’s been, with Brian Dawkins and Al Harris retired, Woodson this season will be the second-oldest defensive back in the NFL. Tampa Bay’s Ronde Barber is the oldest at 37; Woodson turns 36 in October.
In Capers’ three years as coordinator, the Packers have counted on Woodson to be a great player. He won the league’s award for defensive player of the year in 2009, might have been the team’s best defensive player in ’10, and last season tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with seven, though he also showed signs of age.
In acknowledgment to a decline in Woodson’s long speed, the Packers are moving him to safety when they play their base 3-4 defense, though they’ll be in that personnel group probably only about 10 percent of their defensive snaps. In their nickel and dime personnel, their predominant groupings, Woodson will remain at slot cornerback, where he’s matched as much against the quarterback as any receiver as a threat to blitz, fake blitz and jump routes.
The question isn’t whether Woodson can be a good player at that spot at 36, but whether he’s a great one. If not, he still brings a strong presence that garners as much respect as anyone in the locker room, but the Packers will need more playmaking elsewhere to improve a defense that last season plummeted to No. 32 in yards allowed and No. 19 in points allowed after finishing in the top five in both categories in 2010.
“You never know,” Capers said. “But first of all, (Woodson) takes good care of himself. He’s a pro in terms of getting himself ready to play. I look at last year, he still had seven interceptions. In terms of making plays, he was our lead playmaker in that area. I just think there will be certain things he’ll still be able to do at a very high level.
“Who knows until you see a guy out there? But he certainly since I’ve been here over the three years, he was defensive player of the year, even the third year last year the guy made some real key plays to help us win some games. He’s a guy that can take the ball away, he’s tough and he’s smart. We’ll just have to see where that takes us.”
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt insists Woodson can defy the odds and play as well as ever and pointed to Woodson’s offseason as evidence. In his previous years with the Packers, Woodson always was a few pounds over his 202-pound playing weight for offseason workouts and practices, but this year was at the 202 mark in the spring and summer.
“The way he played last year,” Whitt said as another reason he thinks Woodson will be a premier playmaker at an age when most defensive backs are a couple of years retired. “We didn’t play good as a group, but it wasn’t because of Wood. Wood and Jarrett Bush played very well.
“You don’t make the plays (Woodson) made and don’t give up the plays he didn’t give up playing last year — and he turned 35 last year. Everyone wants to hang up on the age, but Wood is going to be Wood, and Wood’s going to play at a high level, because when he feels like he can’t play at the level he’s playing at, he’s not going to play anymore probably. That time is not here.”
Along with Woodson’s move to safety in their base personnel, the Packers are likely to see other adjustments in their secondary after giving up the most passing yards in the NFL last season. Among them, they expect to play more dime personnel than the last three years, which means a fourth cornerback will get more playing time. They could have a new safety when Woodson moves to the slot in the nickel and dime, with either fourth-round draft pick Jerron McMillian and second-year pro M.D. Jennings at least an even bet to supplant Charlie Peprah in that role.
Also, Sam Shields will face serious competition for the outside cornerback spot he’s played the last two years in the nickel and dime. That position will become a starter with Woodson’s move to safety in the base.
Shields seemed to regress last year, especially as a tackler, after his stunning performance in ’10 as an undrafted rookie who shot from the bottom of the depth chart to the nickel role in training camp. This offseason, he and second-year pro Davon House split much of the practice time at that position, though Bush and second-round draft pick Casey Hayward could end up there also, depending on what happens in camp.
Shields, who moved from receiver to cornerback for his senior year in college, had his first run through the Packers’ offseason workout program this year after last year’s was canceled by the NFL lockout.
“He didn’t play as well last year, and that’s on me,” Whitt said. “He’s going to play better because I understand how to coach him and not take for granted some things that a guy that’s played on defense a little longer just understands from playing it. It was some of the run-pass things.”
Shields’ premier long speed makes him best suited to playing on the outside. Bush and Hayward, on the other hand, played mostly in the slot as dime backs in the offseason practices Woodson attended. Capers is planning on playing a second slot cornerback (i.e., dime) more this season than in the past to better match up with spread passing games and the increasing number of wide receiver-like tight ends.
Bush goes into camp with the the lead for the dime spot and showed some ability last season as a slot blitzer (1½ sacks). The Packers traded fifth- and third-round picks to select Hayward late in the second round because they were enamored with his instincts as a possible slot player.
“The thing that you really notice about (Hayward) is he doesn’t give up plays,” Whitt said. “He hasn’t made any plays (in offseason practices), but he hasn’t given up any plays. I thought he would have his hands on a couple more balls, but he hasn’t. But he hasn’t given up any plays either. He doesn’t make mistakes. He hasn’t had a lot of missed assignments and things like that. He doesn’t act like a rookie, he doesn’t move around like a rookie.”
At safety last year, Peprah’s shortcomings in the open field playing in place of injured Nick Collins were exposed more than in ’10, when he played alongside Collins. Peprah probably will open camp as the starter, but McMillian and Jennings will get every chance to win the job.
The Packers drafted McMillian (5-11 1/8, 203 pounds) with a compensatory pick in the fourth round and like his speed (4.50 seconds or less in the 40) and athleticism for the position even though he played at the lower FCS level of Division I football.
Jennings isn’t quite as big (5-11 7/8, 195) or athletic as McMillian but has decent speed, good instincts and has shown a high degree of professionalism after making the team as an undrafted rookie last year.
“(Jennings) comes to work every day and he’s all business,” Capers said. “I think he’s a lot better football player right now than he was at any time last year.”