Pete Dougherty column: Hayward's time is now

Rookie ready to take over Woodson's playmaking nickel role

Nov. 23, 2012
GPG_ES_Packers vs. Lions_11.18.12
Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward (29) runs after making an interception against the Detroit Lions during Sunday's game at Ford Field in Detroit. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

The Green Bay Packers drafted Casey Hayward in the second round this year to eventually replace Charles Woodson in the key playmaking role of slot cornerback in coordinator Dom Capers’ nickel defense.

Who knew the change would, or at least should, come this year?

Sometime in the next few weeks, the 36-year-old Woodson will be back from a broken collarbone, and coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers must decide where to play him. The answer should be safety, so Hayward remains in the nickel cornerback position where he’s been a difference-maker in Woodson’s absence.

When Capers came to the Packers in 2009, he built his scheme around Clay Matthews’ pass rushing and Woodson’s playmaking from the slot position. Capers plays nickel (five defensive backs) more than any other personnel group, and in the slot lines up Woodson close to the line of scrimmage and in the middle of the field. Capers in effect wants Woodson to play the quarterback and use his quick reactions and off-the-charts instincts to blitz or fake blitz; read formations and the passer’s eyes; and jump routes to make plays on the ball.

The result: From 2009 through ’11, Woodson ranked No. 2 in the NFL in interceptions (18), tied for second among defensive backs in combined fumbles forced and recovered (12) and in sacks (6).

Woodson has had a remarkable career that probably will earn him a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and helped the Packers win plenty of games. But in the three games Woodson has missed this season, Hayward has played better in the nickel role than Woodson had in the first seven games. There’s no knowing if Hayward is special enough to be a Hall of Famer in the making, but at age 22 he’s playing the position better than Woodson at 36.

The Packers estimated Woodson would be out about six weeks while his broken collarbone healed. Sunday will be the fifth week since the injury. In the last two weeks in practice, Woodson has appeared to run freely while working as a scout-team receiver in the defensive jog-through portions of practice. So the best guess is he’ll miss Sunday’s Packers-Giants matchup, the home game the following week against Minnesota, and then be ready shortly after that.

The Packers aren’t revealing their plans for Woodson’s return, but Capers at least suggested he might stick with Hayward in the nickel role and play Woodson elsewhere.

“I think Wood can play any of those positions (in the secondary),” Capers said Friday. “Once he comes back we’ll cross that bridge. But the bottom line is going to be us trying to get our best football players on the field.”

The Packers can use any of several combinations of defensive backs in their primary packages (base, nickel, dime, psycho and bat). Woodson had moved to safety in the 3-4 base this season and can play there in any of the groupings. Second-year pro Davon House has been fine at outside cornerback when Hayward moves to the slot in the nickel.

In fact, House’s sound play, along with a second option in Sam Shields whenever he returns from a high ankle sprain, is key to allowing Hayward to stay as the slot corner on Woodson’s return. If House weren’t viable, the Packers probably would have to keep Hayward at outside cornerback on all downs and return Woodson to the slot in nickel.

To put it another way, House and Tramon Williams on the outside, along with Hayward in the slot, is a better nickel grouping at cornerback than Williams and Hayward on the outside and Woodson in the slot. And the main reason is Hayward, who though hardly flawless for the three games without Woodson has been a playmaker for a defense that allowed only 15 points to Jacksonville, 17 points to Arizona and 20 points to Detroit.

In those three games, Hayward has eight passes defended and an interception. For the season, he’s tied for second in the NFL in interceptions (five) and second in passes defended (16) despite playing a relatively limited role for the first five games. And he’s committed no penalties this season.

“You need guys that impact the game,” Capers said. “A lot of times those guys make two, three, four plays a game that helps make a difference in a game. (Hayward) has done that a number of times.”

Woodson’s playmaking from the slot cornerback position won him NFL defensive player of the year in 2009 and was critical to the Packers’ Super Bowl run in 2010. It’s worth noting he was 33 and 34 in those seasons, so at an age when many good defensive backs are retired or going downhill fast, he was exceptional.

This season he turned 36 on Oct. 7, two weeks before sustaining the broken collarbone at St. Louis. In the seven games he played, Woodson had five passes defended, one interception and a forced fumble. He also was called for four penalties in coverage, and while that is partly a function of his physical style of play, it also is a sign of age.

If the Packers keep Hayward at slot cornerback in the nickel, Woodson still could return as an every-down player, or close to it.

Before his injury, Woodson was a safety in the 3-4 base and could stay there opposite Morgan Burnett in the nickel, where M.D. Jennings is getting the majority of snaps for now.

In the dime, rookie Jerron McMillian has been the second slot cornerback (and sixth defensive back). Woodson could move into that second slot role, and Jennings or McMillian could replace him at safety. Before Woodson’s injury, he and Hayward were the slot cornerbacks in the dime – early in the season, the dime was the only time Hayward got on the field.

“I liked having both (Hayward and Woodson) out there,” Capers said. “Wood can play in a number of different places because of his experience and his smarts and all that. We’re always trying to get our best players on the field, and I think both those guys are playmakers.”

General Manager Ted Thompson appears to have hit big on his trade up for Hayward in the second round, which cost him a fifth-round pick to move up from No. 90 overall to No. 62. The Packers saw him as Woodson’s eventual replacement in that key slot role because of his instincts and intelligence.

Yet, Hayward has played much better as a rookie than the four cornerbacks drafted ahead of him: Morris Claiborne by Dallas at No. 6; Stephon Gilmore by Buffalo at No. 10; Dre Kirkpatrick at No. 17 by Cincinnati; and Janoris Jenkins at No. 39 by St. Louis.

Hayward’s case is interesting because going into the draft, several scouts I talked to liked him as a third-round pick because he was instinctive and played the ball well (13 interceptions his last two seasons combined). But they had concerns about his long speed.

Yet, in measurable ways, including 40-yard dash time, he tested comparably to the four cornerbacks selected ahead of him.

For instance, of those four, two ran excellent times, as determined by the average of their two 40s at the NFL scouting combine, where the conditions are the same for all players: Gilmore (4.39 seconds) and Jenkins (4.42 seconds). But Hayward’s 4.53 seconds was the same as Claiborne, who was regarded as the near-consensus top cornerback prospect, and essentially the same as Kirkpartrick (4.52 seconds).

Same for the vertical jump, which is an indicator of pure explosiveness. Gilmore had the best, a good but not outstanding 36 inches, followed by Kirpatrick (35 inches), Claiborne (34½ inches), Hayward (34 inches) and Jenkins (33 ½ inches).

Hayward, though, stood out in the two drills that best measure change of direction. His 3.90 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle run was the best of all the players who ran it at this year’s combine. His 6.76-second three-cone drill ranked 10th among the 59 defensive backs at the combine, and of the four cornerbacks drafted ahead of him, only Gilmore (6.61 seconds) was better (Kirkpatrick didn’t do the short shuttle or three cone after injuring his hamstring).

“It’s another indicator of (Hayward’s) ability to sink his hips and explode, explosion coming out (of breaks), quickness,” Capers said.

“I’ve had corners that were extremely fast, ran 4.4, but maybe there was a little something missing in terms of the anticipation, the instincts, those things. A guy that has the ability to lower his hips and change direction, shows quickness there, those are pretty important skills for a corner.” and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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