Corner the Market
I have to admit, I'm starting to run a little low on football position related puns for these previews. Nevertheless, we march deeper into the defense now with a unit that had more than its share of shortcomings in 2011: the cornerbacks.
Although it's hard to blame them entirely, the cornerback play in 2011 was at least partly to blame for the Packers' horrendous pass defense. Sure, there was very little pass rush, nothing in the way of help from the linebackers, and a safety unit that lost an All-Pro early in the season, but there was also a slightly older Charles Woodson, a banged up Tramon Williams, and a year of regression from Sam Shields. All of this goes only to say that the bar is set pretty low for improvement next season. A few new youngsters in other areas of the defense could make things easier for the corners, but the guys on the field are ultimately the ones who will make the biggest difference. So who's it gonna be? Just to throw everybody off, we're doing reverse alphabetical order this time.
Charles Woodson - As I've said before, Charles Woodson is a really good cornerback who already plays multiple positions within the Packer defense, so he's probably not going to switch to safety. He'll stay at corner and keep doing what he's doing. There's no reason for him to do anything else. Got it? Good.
Tramon Williams - If you go strictly based on the most basic stats, Tramon Williams had pretty comparable seasons in 2010 and 2011. He actually had more tackles (64 to 57), more passes defensed (22 to 20) and only two fewer interceptions (4 to 6). But the numbers don't tell the whole story. Williams seemed off all year. He probably was rushed back a little bit from a shoulder injury in Week One, and considering that all his interceptions came against Philip Rivers (gave interceptions away like candy last year), Christian Ponder (a rookie), and Josh Freeman (struggled badly last year), last year seems like a bad memory. However, new blood in the pass rush should allow Williams to return to making plays on the ball, which is what I think he does best. Nobody jumps out routes like Tramon Williams. (By the way, that link is the best thing in the world. I'll let you figure out why.)
Dion Turner - Two time all-conference in college ball. Played a little safety. Is named Dion.
Sam Shields - Probably the best undrafted free agent signing of the Ted Thompson era, Shields was up and down in 2011. It's again hard to say how much was due to the bad pass rush, but he seemed to get beat a little bit more often last year than the year before. Out of everyone in the secondary, Shields probably was hurt the most by missing most of the offseason work last year, given that he's only been playing the position for three years now (he was a receiver for the first three years of college). I think with a full offseason to practice and prepare, we'll see more good Sam than bad Sam in 2012.
Brandian Ross - Part of me is mad at Brandian Ross. Actually, I'm mad at his mom. According to the internet, you're supposed to pronounce his name "Brandon." Then why is it spelled the way it is? Why doesn't he pronounce it "bran-DEE-an?" How many times has he had to correct the way people spelled it? These are the questions I need answered. Anyhow, Ross is going to be in about a six-way fight for the bottom two or three corner spots, and unfortunately the guys he's competing with have either a) been around the team much longer or b) have the advantage of having been drafted recently. The cards may be stacked against the guy whose mom can't spell.
Otis Merrill - Merrill started his college career at Wisconsin, then transferred to Illinois State. He wasn't a full-time starter until his senior year, but did manage to make second team all-league in the Missouri Valley Conference. Much like Brandian Ross, Merrill is competing for a spot at the bottom of the cornerback rotation. I wish I had something witty and insightful to say about him, but all I can think about is a certain kids' movie when I hear his name.
Davon House - Some reports out of Packer training camp have said that House looks like Al Harris, even beyond the obvious similarities of having the same hair style and wearing the same number. Even though he'll at best probably be competing for time as the number three or four cornerback, I'm excited to see what he can do this year. If he ends up being anything like the last guy to wear number 31, he'll be a solid player for quite a few years to come.
Casey Hayward - The draft day word on Casey Hayward was that although he lacked athleticism, he had perhaps the best ball skills out of any cornerback in the draft. A lack of athleticism would definitely get you red-flagged on my Madden 2012 draft board, in the real NFL, ball skills probably trump athleticism to a certain point. It's probably a stretch comparison at this point, but Charles Woodson certainly isn't the athlete he once was, but his ball skills have allowed him to maintain an incredibly high level of play. It's definitely unrealistic to compare the two, but if Hayward has any kind of knack for generating turnovers, he'll certainly be worth keeping around.
Jarrett Bush - Okay Jarrett Bush, here's the deal: after two years of solid special teams play, your first multi-interception season, a sack and a half last year, and an inexplicably back breaking interception in the Super Bowl, I accept you. I don't approve of you. I don't like you. I accept you. You may stay. You've arrived at the point where any young defensive back must be at least as good as you before they're allowed on the roster. If someone isn't better than you, they don't belong on an NFL team. Deal? Good, I'm glad we had this talk. I feel like we both grew today.
Conclusion - There's probably six or seven available spots in this group, and I think four of them are locked up for sure by Woodson, Williams, Shields, and Hayward. Bush is probably a good bet as well, because of his contributions on special teams. That leaves Turner, Ross, Merrill, and House fighting for one or two spots. I think House probably has a leg up in that race because he's the most recent draft pick, but anything goes in training camp.