Packers.com has been taking a look at the Packers’ roster, position by position. The seventh and final installment focuses on the defensive backs.
GREEN BAY—Plenty of offseason attention will be focused on the safety position for the Packers, but what happens at cornerback could have a direct impact on what happens at safety.
That’s because cornerback Sam Shields is headed for unrestricted free agency, having signed a one-year tender as a restricted free agent last year and then turning in a strong season.
If the Packers are able to re-sign Shields and bring him back to re-join Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward and Davon House, Green Bay’s cornerback depth could be strong enough to move last year’s fifth-round draft pick and slot corner, Micah Hyde, to safety.
Williams returned to peak form in the second half of 2013, with four interceptions over the final seven regular-season games and the playoff contest. He has a high salary-cap number for 2014, but he may have earned the right to keep it by playing down the stretch like he did during the 2010 playoff run.
Hayward, who led the team and all NFL rookies in 2012 with six interceptions, is expected back from a sophomore season lost to hamstring trouble, while House continues to develop, filling in adequately in the wild-card playoff game against the 49ers after Shields left with an injury in the first quarter.
Like Williams, Shields also finished the season strong, with three interceptions from Thanksgiving on, and he led the team by a wide margin in passes defensed with 24. He likely made his personal gamble with the one-year tender pay off.
With that quartet of experienced corners, along with veteran Jarrett Bush and developmental prospects James Nixon, Jumal Rolle and Antonio Dennard also in the mix, the Packers could think about a position switch for Hyde, who had an impressive rookie season playing the nickel and dime slot corner spots.
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said after the season that slot corner responsibilities overlap with some duties at safety, suggesting Hyde could make the transition without excessive difficulty. Whitt described Hyde as a willing tackler and effective blitzer whose skill set makes him versatile.
Even if Shields doesn’t return, the Packers might still consider moving Hyde to safety, because the defense simply didn’t get the impact plays needed from the position. Not a single interception was recorded by a Packers safety in 2013, and that includes veteran Morgan Burnett, who came into the season with a new contract, missed the first three games due to a hamstring injury and then never made much noise.
Burnett was the key communicator in the secondary and by all accounts handled that job with aplomb, but he has just two interceptions over the last two full seasons, both in the same game.
Last year’s draft was fairly deep at safety, but the Packers passed on those prospects, counting on Jerron McMillian or M.D. Jennings to develop into Burnett’s running mate. Things didn’t proceed as hoped. McMillian, a fourth-round pick in 2012, played his way out of a job and was off the roster by December.
Two other undrafted safeties, Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo, saw playing time last year that is expected to aid their development, but it’s too early to know whether either can be a full-time answer.
Richardson, a college teammate of Hayward’s at Vanderbilt, came back from a rookie-season neck injury that required surgery and returned to the field in Week 12 last year, taking more and more of Jennings’ snaps as the season wound down. The biggest of the Packers safeties at 6-2, 216, Richardson has played well near the line of scrimmage, but centerfield coverage remains a proving ground.
At 5-10, Banjo will always have his size to overcome. A regular on special teams, he finished second on the club with 10 coverage tackles. He also worked his way into the playing rotation from scrimmage, even after Burnett’s return from injury, but then saw his defensive snaps reduced when Richardson came back. Banjo is an exclusive-rights free agent.