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DBs: Packers offseason by position

Published On: Feb 16 2014 10:38:03 PM CST
Green Bay Packers

Players under contract

No.

Name

Pos.

Ht.

Wt.

Age

Exp.

College

29

Casey Hayward

CB

5-11

192

24

2

Vanderbilt

38

Tramon Williams

CB

5-11

191

30

7

La. Tech

42

Morgan Burnett

S

6-1

209

24

3

Georgia Tech

33

Micah Hyde

CB

6-0

197

23

R

Iowa

24

Jarrett Bush

CB

6-0

200

29

8

Utah State

31

Davon House

CB

6-1

195

24

3

New Mexico St.

25

James Nixon

CB

6-0

186

26

1

California (Pa.)

28

Sean Richardson

S

6-2

216

24

2

Vanderbilt

20

Jumal Rolle

CB

6-0

188

23

R

Catawba

35

Antonio Dennard

CB

5-11

189

24

1

Langston

 

Unrestricted free agents

No.

Name

Pos.

Ht.

Wt.

Age

Exp.

College

37

Sam Shields

CB

5-11

184

26

4

Miami (Fla.)

 

Restricted free agents

No.

Name

Pos.

Ht.

Wt.

Age

Exp.

College

43

M.D. Jennings

S

6-0

195

25

3

Arkansas State

 

Exclusive rights free agents

No.

Name

Pos.

Ht.

Wt.

Age

Exp.

College

32

Chris Banjo

S

5-10

207

23

R

SMU

 

The good news:  Although there is uncertainty surrounding their two starters at cornerback – Shields, who will be an unrestricted free agent, and Williams, who is entering the final year of his contract and is set to earn a $6.9 million base salary and count $9.5 million against the salary cap – the Packers still have young, inexpensive talent at the position. Hyde, a fifth-round pick, had his moments where he looked like a rookie, but overall, he played beyond his years and appears to be a keeper. Hayward, a second-round pick in 2013 who was third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year balloting, missed all but three games because of a hamstring injury that dated back to before training camp but should be fully healthy for the offseason program. And House, who has struggled with injuries and inconsistent play his first three seasons, remains in the mix as well. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt is also intrigued by Rolle and Nixon, and given the way Shields has developed, it’s not unreasonable to think another young, undrafted player could develop.

That said, it’d be hard to argue that there’s enough depth at the position – you know the old saying about never having enough corners – to withstand the free-agent departure of Shields and Williams being released if the club went to him looking for a restructured deal and he balked. That’s one reason why it’s hard to imagine the Packers letting Shields walk; at the very least, he could be franchise-tagged, with the two-week window for using the tag opening on Monday.

“I think he’s one of our top 1-2 guys on defense, in my opinion. So he’s important to us,” Whitt said at season’s end. “When he first came in, he was a receiver playing corner. Now he is a defensive back and a very good one. So there’s just a huge, huge difference. He’s shown the ability to tackle – which, he needs to tackle better than he did this year, but he showed really that last year. The ability to cover No. 1 receivers, the ability to challenge them, the ability to get the ball every time his hands touch it, he’s just really come a long way. And his best football’s still in front of him. That’s the encouraging thing. You haven’t seen his best football yet.”

The bad news:  After giving Burnett a $24.75 million extension and deciding to let Jennings and the departed Jerron McMillian battle it out for the starting spot next to him in training camp, the safety position was – to put it politely – a disappointment. McMillian, a 2012 fourth-round pick, was cut at midseason, something virtually unheard of in the draft-and-develop world of Ted Thompson. It’s something of a miracle that the Packers didn’t lose their Oct. 13 game at Baltimore to the defending Super Bowl champs after his back-to-back gaffes in the closing minutes led to a touchdown. But Jennings, who started all 17 games including playoffs, wasn’t all that much better, and it’s possible that the Packers won’t tender him as a free agent – even though he entered the league as an undrafted player. Banjo, added a week into camp, turned out to be a decent special-teams player but lacks the measurables that the Packers want in a safety. That leaves only Richardson, who got medical clearance after having single fusion cervical spine surgery on the C5/C6 vertebrae and returned after opening the season on the physically unable to perform list, as a viable option already on the roster. The coaches loved his size-speed ratio as an undrafted rookie in 2012, and he’s clearly not afraid to be physical.

Regardless, the reality is that the safety play wasn’t good enough and has to be the team’s No. 1 position of need entering free agency and the draft. No stat was more damning than this: The Packers’ safeties did not have a single interception all season.

“That’s the thing, you have to be careful when you look at numbers. If you look at numbers and you use those as a sole measuring stick, you can get fooled,” safeties coach Darren Perry explained – or tried to. “You really have to look with your eyes and be critical of yourself and not get caught up in what the stats say. Again, if you put numbers up against other people, you say, ‘Oh, that’s not a bad year.’ Morgan had over 100 tackles for the third year in a row, and you say, ‘That’s a pretty good season.’ But again, we gave up too many big plays in the passing game. That just can’t happen if you want to be a top-notch defense. Those are the plays we have to eliminate, bottom line.

“Interceptions don’t define a person’s career, I’ve been around great players, coached great players that didn’t get a lot of interceptions. That doesn’t make them a good player or bad player. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity and capitalizing on it.”

The big question: One has to wonder what the future holds for Williams, who came out after the season and made a pitch for adding more veterans to the perpetually young roster. He turns 31 in March, has that enormous cap number for this coming season and really hasn’t been the same since a shoulder injury that caused nerve damage in the 2011 regular-season opener. Then again, Williams, who signed a five-year, $33 million extension in November 2010 when he was at the top of his game, was starting to look more and more like that 2010 version of himself during the final 1/3 of the season. If that’s who he will be going forward, then it’s worth considering an extension that will ease his cap hit for 2014. Either way, Williams knows a decision is looming.

“My job is just to come in and play and whoever is in here, whether they rebuild it or keep the guys in here, I will be ready to play,” Williams said. “I think we have the players in here to get the job done. I feel we always have, we’ve just got to find guys who understand what we’re trying to do. And get it done; put the preparation in and get it done.”

Offseason outlook: While Shields’ free agency might be the most important issue facing the team – in light of the NFL Network report from Ian Rapoport last week that predicted the Packers would let veteran defensive lineman B.J. Raji walk as part of a plan to remake the line – something has to be done at safety, given the position’s importance to the defense.

“It’s vital,” Perry admitted. “You’ve got to be smart. Morgan’s our strong safety, he’s up near the line of scrimmage, so he’s been that guy, that kind of linebacker hybrid, he doesn’t get as many opportunities in the deep part of the field as you would like, because he’s got good ball skills. At the same time, when in that position, he’s got to be able to take advantage and make some plays.

“[At the other safety spot], we were looking for a guy that can make some plays, but obviously this is not a system where you can just plug a guy in and let them go out and play because there’s a mental challenge, and I think the guys when they were out there, mentally, they did about as well as they could do. Obviously we didn’t get the production that we wanted from that position. But I think the guys gave great effort, and I have no qualms about the way they played. We just want more production.”

That’s the attitude Perry has about Burnett as well, although when it was suggested that Burnett might have been burdened by the expectations that came with his new contract, Perry didn’t really agree. Not only did the safeties not make enough plays themselves, but the secondary as a group gave up too many plays of 20 yards or more – 82 in 17 games, nearly as bad as the 85 they surrendered in 17 games in 2011 – as well.

“We make no excuses. Morgan played hard; I have no issues with his effort. Again, my main concern is our big plays that we give up. We’ve got eliminate that,”. We crept back up into the top amongst pass plays over 20 yards, and that was something that zeroed in on last year. We got it down, this year it went back up. More important than anything else is the big plays that we give up in the pass game. That’s something that we’ve got to go back and make sure that we eliminate.”

At corner, whatever happens with Shields and Williams, the unit would get a huge boost from a healthy Hayward. His return would also free up the possibility – although none of the defensive coaches acknowledged that they were even thinking about it – of moving Hyde to safety.

“The thing I was encouraged with Casey was, the offseason, I honestly thought he had the best offseason of anybody before we were coming back from training camp. And when he called me and told me he pulled his hamstring, I could have just fell out of my chair,” Whitt said. “Because the way he looked during the offseason, I thought he would have one of those 1-2 spots. If he can just get his body back right, we’re going to have an opportunity to be really impactful when we get him back because he’s a guy that has natural instincts, he understands how to get the ball, he plays that slot very, very well. So I’m looking forward to having him back in the fold.”

Next: Special teams.

– Jason Wilde

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