The competition to replace Tramon Williams is under way for the Green Bay Packers with several cornerbacks slated to contend for the starting job this summer.
The two with the most experience, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde, have played more as slot defenders than boundary cornerbacks during their NFL careers. But both feel they have the necessary tools to play outside.
Opportunity and uncertainty hit the Packers' secondary when Williams and Davon House left Green Bay for lucrative free-agent contracts in Cleveland and Jacksonville, respectively. As usual, the Packers looked internally to replace them rather than veteran stopgaps.
The Packers made a long-term commitment to Sam Shields last offseason, but the rest of the secondary remains an unsolved puzzle. Last year's sixth-round pick Demetri Goodson and practice-squad holdover Tay Glover-Wright join Hyde and Hayward on the depth chart.
General manager Ted Thompson is likely to add reinforcements through the NFL draft, perhaps as early as the 30th pick in the first round. Still, the Packers have confidence in their current makeup.
"I have 100 percent faith in the guys that are here," Hyde said before the start of the Packers' 10th-annual tailgate tour Tuesday. "We're a close-knit group and we've got some competitors. The past couple years we've had a lot of depth and a lot of guys weren't able to perform because of the depth. The guys that are here will be ready to go and we're looking forward to it."
Hayward, 25, has the most perimeter experience of the internal options, but 80 percent of Hayward's career snaps (603 of 753) have come in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. Coming out of Vanderbilt, many scouts wondered if his speed and physicality would be enough to play on an island.
The 5-foot-11, 192-pounder has been productive when healthy with 103 tackles, 28 pass deflections and nine interceptions in 35 career games. Hayward made a play for defensive rookie of the year in 2012 after Charles Woodson broke his collarbone, but missed most of the following season with a recurring hamstring injury.
That injury appears to be in the past. Hayward played in all 18 games last season (including playoffs), but his defensive snaps were sporadic. He finished with 42 tackles, three interceptions and two turnovers returned for touchdowns in 426 snaps (38.9 percent).
It's an important year for Hayward, who'll be an unrestricted free agent after 2015. Claiming a starting job would give a significant boost to his marketability, but Hayward's biggest concern is showing he can thrive in a consistent role.
"I hope so, but it's a long process," Hayward said when asked if he can play the perimeter. "Hopefully, everybody will come in here and compete. The best man is going to play. So it really doesn't matter who comes in because the best two people are going to play outside."
It was in Hayward's absence that Hyde rose to prominence in the secondary. Like Hayward, there were questions about Hyde's speed (4.56 seconds in 40-yard dash) that played a role in him falling to the fifth round in 2013.
Hyde isn't the same type of playmaker as Hayward, but he's perhaps the Packers' best tackler in the secondary. In an effort to get him on the field more, the Packers converted him to safety, where he started the first half of the season before settling into the slot.
Although first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix eventually claimed the starting safety job, Hyde's physicality helped him maintain his edge as the nickel cornerback during a 59-tackle, two-interception season.
Hyde said he "can do whatever I put my mind to." Whatever he lacks in speed, Hyde believes, he can make up for in football acumen. It's worked on special teams where he's fashioned a 13.6-yard average and three touchdowns on 38 punt returns.
"I think it's an opportunity for everyone," Hyde said of Williams' and House's departures. "Everyone in the secondary, to step up their game any way they can and help the guys that come in, help the guys that are already here be better, be better teammates and just get ready to play."
Williams' leadership will be missed in the locker room. A former practice-squad player, Williams clawed his way up the depth chart before a breakthrough 2010 season in which he had nine interceptions (including playoffs).
Williams never quite attained the same Pro Bowl level of play after signing a four-year, $33 million extension in 2011, but was a dependable difference-maker in Dom Capers' defense. His self-made temperament earned him universal respect among his peers.
The Packers drew a line in the sand with Williams. The 32-year-old went unsigned for the better part of two weeks before the Cleveland Browns offered a three-year, $21 million contract with $14 million guaranteed.
The Packers showed even less interest in re-signing House, a mostly rotational player who departed on a four-year, $25 million deal with the Jaguars.
His ability to play either inside or outside is what made him attractive to the Browns. Hayward feels he has the versatility to thrive in a similar capacity.
"The coaches know what I can do, they know I can play outside," Hayward said. "Towards the latter part of the year, I was the third man up, so when somebody was going to down, I would be coming in. I proved myself. They know what kind of player they have in me and I know what kind of player I am. I just have to go out there and fulfill the role, whatever they need me to do — whether it's inside, outside, it doesn't matter where they want me to be at. I just have to be ready to go out and compete."
The secondary is ready for the upcoming changes. Hyde and Hayward know there will a transition once training camp starts, but there's also excitement about the possibilities with a wide-open race for playing time.
"It was huge having them. I think I'd be lying if I said they weren't a huge part of our secondary," Hyde said. "I respect both their games. But at the same time, you can't worry about departures. I think the guys upstairs will get guys in here to fill in those positions. We'll have faith in the coaches and us as teammates that the guys that come in, we'll get them ready."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod