Following the Packers’ early exit from the playoffs for a second consecutive year and a poor showing in trying to stop the offense of the San Francisco 49ers, it’s clear that there need to be changes on the defensive side of the football.
Help is needed on the defensive line, and upcoming decisions on the futures of A.J. Hawk and Charles Woodson could create open spots at the second and third levels of the defense.
But perhaps there’s room for more change in the secondary. Cornerback is, after all, one of the deeper positions on the team.
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt acknowledged last week in the aftermath of the playoff loss that there will basically be an open competition at the position, as told to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and several other outlets.
“It’s going to be interesting to see who are going to be the guys who run out there on Day One,” Whitt is quoted as saying, “because right now I couldn’t tell you who’s going to do what because the way that Sam (Shields) and Casey (Hayward) have played. And with Tramon (Williams) and (Davon) House there, there’s four guys that are vying for two spots. Maybe three with nickel. It will be interesting to see who gets it.”
Looking back at the 2012 season, one thing is for sure. Hayward needs to be a three-down player in 2013.
It’s understandable that the Packers wanted to bring Hayward along slowly in his rookie year. By playing him primarily in the subpackages upon the return of Sam Shield from a midseason injury, the Packers avoided overwhelming Hayward and prevented him from hitting the proverbial “rookie wall.”
But Hayward performed so admirably, there’s no way the Packers can’t afford to have him out on the field 100 percent of the time beginning next season. The team-leading six interceptions were impressive, but they were just the tip of the iceberg.
Consider the analysis from ProFootballFocus.com (premium content) that has Hayward as allowing the lowest passer rating (31.1) for passes thrown in his direction among more than 100 NFL cornerbacks.
Then factor into the equation that Hayward was one of only a handful of regulars on the Packers defense that didn’t commit a single penalty all season long.
Whatever shortcomings Hayward might have––namely speed––he makes up for it with instincts and an innate know-how.
There’s no doubt Hayward is the slot cornerback of the present and the future, but where should he play when the Packers are in their base 3-4 defense?
Perhaps the time is now to make Hayward the Charles Woodson of 2013. In the event that Woodson will not be with the Packers next season, the Packers might be advised to turn Hayward into a safety now while he’s still in the early stages of his development.
In terms of relative weakness, there’s little doubt that Hayward is not yet in in the same class as Woodson from an aggressiveness and tackling standpoint.But those are qualities that can be honed as Hayward continues to work on becoming bigger and stronger with the help of an NFL-caliber strength and conditioning staff in an NFL-caliber weight facility.
By moving Hayward to safety, the Packers can also keep more of their cornerbacks on the field, a strength of the team, at least in coverage.
In addition to Hayward, it became clear in 2012 that Shields was one of the most improved players on the team and is deserving of a starting and full-time role in the future.
Speed is Shields’ best asset, and he used it to his advantage in becoming ProFootballFocus.com’s highest rated cover corner (among those playing at least 50 percent of all defensive snaps), allowing only one reception for every 16.3 snaps in coverage.
Shields was also able to diversify his game and not become a liability in run support. As long as he doesn’t regress in either phase of the game, Shields deserves to be a perimeter cornerback on the field for all three downs.
But where does that leave Tramon Williams?
On one hand, Williams was a capable coverage cornerback in 2012. Certainly his performance against the Minnesota Vikings in the regular-season finale was deplorable, but performances against top-tier receivers like Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall were top-notch.
Williams just can’t tackle anymore, however. That comes as particularly disappointing seeing as recently as 2010, Williams was an aggressive tackler. The shoulder injury that Williams sustained in 2011, including major nerve damage, is probably a big factor.
Whether Hayward plays cornerback or safety in 2013, maybe it’s time to get Williams off the field in the base defense. Seeing as the Packers use the 3-4 alignment primarily on first and second downs when the opponent is more likely to run the football, at least they would be minimizing Williams’ weaknesses and playing to his strengths.
House is also part of the Packers’ options and could be an option to start opposite Shields at one of the perimeter cornerback positions if Hayward were to be moved to safety.
These are merely suggestions, possible solutions to what were problems in the Packers secondary in 2012.
Outside of Shields playing on the perimeter and Hayward in the slot, there are plenty of potential routes the Packers could take. Even a return by Woodson at safety isn’t out of question. So is drafting a safety.
And it’s possibilities like these that will make for an interesting offseason in Green Bay.