Offseason changes loom for secondary
Tramon Williams knew his defense was sold against the run. Zero coverage, with both safeties near the line of scrimmage, puts pressure squarely on the cornerback.
So Green Bay's veteran knew what was coming on Sunday's final play of overtime. It was just Williams versus Seattle receiver Jermaine Kearse, all alone.
Williams was giving up two inches, almost 20 pounds, with no help from the middle of the field when Kearse caught a touchdown pass that put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
"Right on him in coverage," Williams said. "If you don't have a safety in the middle of the field, the quarterback can pretty much throw it across the field. It's a tough play on him.
"I felt that I was in good position, though. Couldn't get the ball out. Guy made a good catch, and Russell made a good throw."
Inside Green Bay's locker room earlier this week, the team's late collapse to Seattle in the NFC championship game was an unavoidable topic. Another issue, more subtle but impossible to ignore, was the impending changes coming this offseason in the Packers' secondary.
Kearse's touchdown could be Williams' final play in a Packers uniform. The four-year, $33 million contract he signed following the Packers' run to the Super Bowl in 2010 expires in March. Williams knew his future was uncertain when he faced reporters inside CenturyLink Field's visiting locker room moments after Sunday's shocking end.
When Williams was asked whether that final play will gnaw at him through the offseason and beyond, he didn't flinch.
"Right now it will," Williams said, "but if I played a really, really bad game, it would eat at me all offseason. But I don't feel that I played bad at all. I feel that I played a good game, and the guy at the end of the game made a play."
Williams also played a good season.
At 31 years old, the Packers' oldest defensive back may have been its best. He led the Packers with 14 defended passes and tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
Williams' play makes Packers general manager Ted Thompson's decision difficult. The eighth-year cornerback counted $9.5 million against the salary cap this season, too costly for a player who's no longer matched against premier receivers. Those assignments went to Sam Shields, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl as a replacement after signing a four-year, $39 million contract last March.
Still, the combination of Shields and Williams on the outside was one of the biggest strengths for Green Bay's defense. It was especially beneficial Sunday. The Packers played mostly single, man-to-man coverage against the Seahawks' overmatched receivers, allowing safeties to creep into the box for support against Seattle's top-ranked rushing attack.
"They jumped on us and just tore us up in the first quarter," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
Williams played at a high level this season, but it's no guarantee he'll continue over the next couple years. Next season, he will be 32 years old. He'll also play one of the most athletically demanding positions on the field. When a cornerback starts to decline because of age, it usually happens fast.
Thompson could opt to go with a younger option.
Backup cornerback Davon House will also be a free agent after his four-year, $2.3 million rookie contract expires in March. House will turn 26 in July, but younger doesn't necessarily translate to more durability.
While Williams has played 127 of the possible 128 games in his career – starting every game the past three seasons – House has played a full 16-game schedule just once in his four seasons. He missed three games this season with a shoulder injury.
When healthy, House was productive as the primary backup on the perimeter. He had only one interception — though the pick came in coverage against Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson — but his 10 passes defended were the second straight season he finished in double digits.
House projects as a starting cornerback, and he could demand a hefty price on the open market. With salary cap restraints, Thompson may have to choose between Williams or House. Near season's end, House sounded resigned to the possibility he might not return to Green Bay.
On Monday, he said the Packers were his preference.
"I don't want to play nowhere else," House said, "but at the same time — I don't want to say if I'm not wanted here, but if things don't work out here, I just know there is a business side of things. I appreciate that everyone in here wants to be a Packer forever, but the reality is that it's not going to happen."
No matter what decisions Thompson makes, it's unlikely Green Bay's secondary will be as deep and talented as it was this season. Shields and Williams were among the league's better pair of cover corners, but the plethora of options made the Packers' secondary special. House, Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward could all be trusted in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme.
Rookie Demetri Goodson, a sixth rounder in last year's draft, could help soften the blow if he's able to develop this offseason. Goodson only contributed as a special teams player this season, but cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. has been optimistic about his progression.
Regardless, one of the Packers' biggest challenges this offseason will be maintaining — and retaining — one of its biggest strengths.
"That's just the nature of the beast," safety Morgan Burnett said. "It's a business, and I don't have a say with that. You wish those guys the best of luck with whatever decisions they do make for them and their families. Those are really great professionals. It was fun being around them.
"There's a lot of things I learned from guys like Tramon, (Jarrett Bush), just the way they carried themselves. House, the way he faced adversity coming back from injury. Never complaining. Those are great football players, and I wish them the best of luck with whatever happens."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood