Defensive backs roster
This is the seventh of an eight-part position-by- position look at the 2013 Green Bay Packers.
■ July 19: Offensive linemen
■ July 20: Quarterbacks
■ July 21: Running backs
■ July 22: Receivers/tight ends
■ July 23: Defensive linemen
■ July 24: Linebackers
■ Today: Defensive backs
■ Friday: Special teams
Defensive back is at once the Green Bay Packers’ thinnest and deepest position area.
At safety, the Packers were light going into this year’s draft, with a starting job open and a neck injury threatening the career of their No. 4 from last season. Yet it’s the lone position of need general manager Ted Thompson didn’t address among his 11 picks.
But at cornerback, Thompson’s recent draft classes are contributing to an abundance of mostly young talent. Just two years after the Packers gave up the most passing yards in the NFL, defensive coordinator Dom Capers can go at least four deep with starting-caliber cornerbacks, which is critical for matching up nickel and dime personnel with the spread passing games that dominate the league.
“I certainly feel better about where we are than last year at this time,” Capers said of his secondary. “I knew last year we were going to be putting a lot of young guys out there.”
The potential soft spot at safety begins with the starting job opposite Morgan Burnett, who last week signed a contract extension through 2017.
Going into the draft it looked like a strong bet Thompson would select a safety in the first four rounds to add competition for starting candidates M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian. But Thompson passed, so when training camp opens Friday morning Jennings and McMillian will begin a battle for playing time that goes back to last year.
They split time, though Jennings, a third-year pro, finished ahead of McMillian on the depth chart. In 16 games, Jennings had one interception, six passes defended, no fumble plays and according to ProFootballFocus.com, five missed tackles.
McMillian also played regularly, some at safety and some as a slot cornerback in dime personnel, which is a sign he’s the more dynamic athlete. McMillian ended up playing more defensive snaps than Jennings (586 to 561), and had one interception, 13 passes defended, a fumble recovery and five missed tackles.
Jennings has a thinner build (6 feet, 195 pounds to McMillian’s 5-11, 203) but at least last season was better versed in the defense. The Packers, though, drafted McMillian in ’11 as a possible starter down the road.
“As a young player there’s some technique things we need to clean up (with McMillian), but mentally he knows what we’re doing, he knows what his responsibilities are,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “So that won’t be an excuse. The big thing I’m talking about is consistency, and along with that comes the focus. You have to be dialed in every play to do your job to the fullest. If you’re not, you get a little sloppy, miss a tackle or give up a big play or allow a catch that we can’t have back there. That’s something we’ll have an eye on as we get into the preseason games.”
Behind Jennings and McMillian, the Packers look especially thin. Second-year pro Sean Richardson, an impressive size-speed prospect (6-2½, 216, 4.50-second 40) who made the team as an undrafted rookie last season, is recovering from neck surgery in January. It’s far from given that he’ll even pass a physical and play this year.
The only other safeties on the roster are Chaz Powell, who played in college at Penn State and spent four regular-season and two playoff games on the Packers’ practice squad last season, and David Fulton, an undrafted rookie from Chowan.
“We feel like we’ve got three good (safeties), a lot of people can’t say that,” Perry said. “Yeah, you’d like to have four good ones you feel good about. Obviously I’m not a doctor, and Sean’s situation is still up in the air. But we don’t make excuses. We play the hand that’s dealt and make the most of it. If we go in there with four good ones, three good ones, that’s what we’ll do.”
At cornerback, the battle for the starting job opposite Tramon Williams should be fierce.
As a rookie last year, Casey Hayward showed playmaking ability as Woodson’s replacement at nickel cornerback. That figures to be Hayward’s main position for years to come, but he also is in the running with third-year pros Sam Shields and Davon House for the starting job in base personnel.
If Hayward is the starter, then either Shields or House will bump him into the slot in the nickel, and the other likely will play the second slot in the dime. McMillian also could be in the running for the dime job.
“If somebody gets hurt or if we need to get a different look,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said, “we have multiple guys that know both positions, and we’ll be able to play at the same level as the first group of guys.”
Hayward was one of the keys to the Packers’ improvement from the No. 32 ranking in passing yards allowed and No. 9 in defensive passer rating in 2011 to Nos. 11 and 4 (76.8) last season. He was an upgrade over the aging Woodson in the playmaking nickel role in Capers’ scheme after the latter’s collarbone injury in Week 7 and led the team in interceptions (six) and passes defended (25).
All things being equal, the Packers might want Hayward solely in the nickel role, but if he outplays the others he also could be teamed with Williams in the base. Whitt said that three of Hayward’s six interceptions last season were at outside cornerback, not the nickel slot.
“(Hayward’s) best football is still in front of him,” Whitt said. “Might he give up more plays? He might, because that’s one thing he didn’t do, he didn’t give up many plays last year. But I think he can be more impactful and pull the ball off someone. He can be a double-digit interception guy here in the future. Am I saying he’s going to do that next year? I’m not saying that, but he has that type of skill set.”
Shields rebounded from a shaky sophomore year in ’11 to regain the starting job opposite Williams by Week 2 last season. He missed six games because of a shin and ankle injury but finished with three interceptions and 10 passes defended in 10 games. The Packers tried and failed to sign him to a contract extension in the offseason, so the former undrafted rookie will be a free agent in March.
“(Shields) has a rare skill set with his speed and ability to see and catch the flash of the ball,” Whitt said. “So I’m not going to set a ceiling on him. But the thing he has to do is understand that there are eight other guys in that (cornerbacks meeting) room that are really, really good football players.”
Last year House (6-1, 195) was the early leader in training camp for the starting job opposite Williams but lost his bid when a shoulder injury in the preseason opener cost him two months on the sideline. He missed the first six regular-season games, then as an injury backup wearing a restrictive harness played 311 of the team’s 1,088 defensive snaps, and had 13 passes defended (no interceptions).
House had surgery in January that prevented him from practicing in the offseason, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of camp. If he plays like he did early in camp last year, he could make a strong run at a starting job.
“I think I have a guy that can really play,” Whitt said of House. “I’ve never coached a guy that’s improved as much as he has from the time I got him until where he is now with play style, attitude, focus.”
Behind that group are the 29-year-old Bush, who has been the team’s best special teams player the past few years, and three young players who this offseason looked like viable NFL cornerbacks: fifth-round draft pick Micah Hyde, practice-squad holdover James Nixon and former CFL player Loyce Means.
Whitt said Nixon can challenge Shields as the team’s fastest player, and Nixon and Means are the biggest threats to displace Bush from his special teams role. Hyde isn’t as athletic as Hayward but showed some of the same instincts in offseason practices.