Examining the 2011 Green Bay Packers: Defensive Backs

I am a fan of advanced statistics and analytics, but sometimes the simple measures are the best.  For instance, in 20 games last season (regular and playoffs), Green Bay recorded 32 interceptions, had 131 passes defensed, and were 5th in the league in passing yards allowed per game (194.2).  They recorded a league-best (worst?) 67.2 passer rating against.  In no uncertain terms, the Packers made opposing quarterbacks miserable and wide receivers frustrated.

The credit deserves to be spread around, but since this is the DB evaluation, I'm going to go ahead and pile on the kudos.  Green Bay had the league's best secondary in 2010, and 4 of their top 5 defensive backs are 27 or younger.  They covered all types of receivers well, excelled in both zone and man coverage, limited big plays downfield, and generally had a knack for clutch plays.  I literally can't come up with enough positive adjectives.  Can you?

Cornerbacks (8): Tramon WilliamsCharles Woodson, Sam Shields, Pat Lee, Brandon Underwood, Jarrett Bush, Josh Bell, Josh Gordy

Safeties (8): Nick Collins, Anthony Smith, Atari Bigby, Charlie Peprah, Morgan Burnett, Derrick Martin, Anthony Levine, Michael Greco 

#38 Tramon Williams

Player Progression (progress/stagnate/regress from 2010)progress

Team Standing (expanded/same/diminshed role)same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: high

It almost feels wrong to start off the cornerbacks' evaluations with anyone other than the 2009 DPOY.  But you have to remember one thing: Tramon Williams was the best corner on the team last season, and is easily within the top-10 at his position going into 2011.  Not only was he the best pure cover man on the defense, but his run support improved immensely.  One of the better form tacklers, Williams did an excellent job bottling up ball carriers in the open field, preventing big gains by keying in on the runner's midsection and wrapping up.

He's got everything, really.  You want numbers?  Over the past three seasons, Williams has averaged 56.5 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 16.3 passes defensed.  Is durability an issue?  He has played every game over his 4-year career with Green Bay; the only game he missed was the Pro Bowl (and it wasn't because of injury).  How does he perform when it matters most?  He did this in the Wild Card game against Philadelphia, and followed up with this against Atlanta in the Divisional round.

Tramon Williams is rivaled by few other corners in the league, and there's no telling how good he'll eventually be.  He's 27 years old, just signed a 5-year extension, and gets to keep learning from Charles Woodson.  Barring injury, expect the 2011 to raise his status equal to that of the Revis-Asomugha tier.

#21 Charles Woodson

Player Progression: regress

Team Standing: same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: average

In 14 years, Woodson has been a Heisman winner, a young star, an injury-prone malcontent, free agency's persona non grata, the cornerstone of a top defense, Defensive Player of the Year, and finally Super Bowl winner.  If any young player with loads of talent needs inspiration, Woodson is the man I would point them towards, because he's done so many things and been through so much during his career.  He means the world to this defense as a player, to the team as a leader, and to the fans as a person.

All that aside, it's foolish to think that Woodson can keep up his high standard of play, especially at 34 years old.  2009 was his best season, but was likely the last one of his prime; 2010 was the introduction to Charles Woodson's twilight.  He has inevitably lost a step athletically, but considering where he started off, he can still keep up with 80% of the NFL's offensive players.  Dom Capers compensated his scheme accordingly, and showed how he can use Woodson has a jack-of-all-trades defender, lining him up as a strange CB-OLB-S hybrid.  This will probably lengthen his career as an effective player (as would the oft-mentioned full-time move to safety).  

If Capers can keep bringing his A-game, Green Bay's championship window will stay open for as long as Woodson is a part of the gameplan.  My money says three more years, tops.  But it'll be a good three years.

#37 Sam Shields

Player Progression: progress

Team Standing: expanded role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: high

The top two corners on the roster would be the envy of most teams in the league, but Sam Shields just might be the best #3 corner in the entire NFL.  Yet another undrafted Ted Thompson discovery, Shields exhibited one trait at Miami that gave him a shot to go pro: speed.  It's no surprise that a player from The U had a fast 40 time, but what was surprising about Shields was the fact that he didn't play defense until his senior season.

His defensive debut was as anonymous as any undrafted free agent, but Thompson signed him looking for help in the return game, where he had limited success.  Shields was perfectly mediocre at the task, but quickly turned the heads of the defensive coaching staff during training camp.  A Family Night scrimmage pick-6, this, and a few rounds of roster cuts later, Shields found himself  a member of the 53-man roster, an active contributor on special teams, and eventually the nickel corner.

With most rookies, Shields had a few bumps along the way, but his ball skills had improved so much that Capers trusted him to match up against receivers outside while Woodson wreaked havoc in the middle.  And as the Chicago Bears learned, the approach worked.  He was the setup man; without him, Woodson would have had to stick to more conventional CB duties.  If he progresses at half the rate he did in 2010, you're looking at a top-notch cover man within a year or two.  

#22 Pat Lee

Player Progression: stagnate

Team Standing: same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: average to low

With two undrafted success stories ahead of him, you have to wonder what it's like to be Pat Lee.  A 2nd round pick out of Auburn in 2008, he's had four seasons to show how his talent translates to the pros.  And the culmination of those four seasons is as follows: 11 tackles, 1 pass defensed...and not much else.

Still, he had a productive college career, so there's more talent there than we might be able to tell.  If he buckles down and puts in the work necessary in the offseason (however long it may be), he could become the best dime back in league history.  But competition for that job is stiff in Green Bay, and Lee's injury history could work against him.

#28 Brandon Underwood

Player Progression: progress

Team Standing: same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: average to low

Underwood is virtually the same player as Lee, minus the draft status and the injuries.  Underwood has an edge in terms of athleticism, and has shown more promise to develop during practice sessions and camps.  He also has more of an impact on special teams, leading all team rookies in 2009 in special teams tackles.  

Personal issues aside, I think Underwood has a chance to be a decent role player in this league.  The only reason I see him getting better while Lee stays the same is that Underwood is younger and therefore has a bit more time to mature as a player.  The roster battle for dime cornerback will come down to these two, unless another corner is brought in (in which case both players will probably be cut).  

#24 Jarrett Bush

Player Progression: stagnate

Team Standing: same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: average to high

I have never sports-hated a player on my own team more than I've sports-hated Jarrett Bush.  He seems to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time; if a big play happens while he's on the field, you can bet that he was somehow involved.  You usually don't ever want a player to get cut during training camp, but every time his name was absent from the list, the more my desire to see him axed grew.

Then he went and got himself a takeaway in the Super Bowl.  It was so un-Jarrett Bush-like; he avoided premature contact, got a great read on the throw, angled himself against the receiver to disrupt the catch, and hauled in the pick before hitting the ground.  I was convinced that someone had switched jerseys by accident.  Were we sure that wasn't Pat Lee?  Atari Bigby?  Josh Sitton?!  Nope, Jarrett Bush did that.

One play doesn't erase the history of poor defensive instincts, unnecessary penalties, and blown coverage.  However, Bush's value to the special teams unit is extraordinarily high, as he's one of the most consistent coverage men on the team.  When Tennessee signed him to an offer sheet in 2009, and everyone (myself included) was begging for Thompson to let him go, he went and matched the offer, which I'm sure helped make him the second-most hated Packer in recent history.  But of course, it turns out to have been a smart move, and Bush will probably be on the team forever.  Whatever, fine, just have Tom Crabtree hide your helmet whenever the defense takes the field.

* * *

#36 Nick Collins

Player Progression: progress

Team Standing: same role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: high

Nick Collins  a ball-hawk, pure and simple.  17 interceptions and 42 passes defensed during the last three seasons speak more than enough of his coverage skills.  Collins is also an adept tackler, averaging 67 per season through his 6-year career.  He's been a Pro Bowler for three years running, and at 27 years old, he's smack-dab in the middle of his prime.  

If you want a perfect example of how dynamic Collins is, look no further than his Super Bowl pick-6.  Playing deep center field (thanks to outstanding coverage outside), he's able to diagnose the routes being run and key off of the quarterback's throw.  He immediately commits to the near sideline, and shows enough awareness to find the ball fluttering in mid-air.  He goes up to make the catch, and when he starts the return, he balances himself along the sideline, finds a seam, jukes out a defender, accelerates through the opening, and dives for the end zone.  A brilliant play, but just one of many in Collins' career.

So what can he do better?  Well, focus seems to be an area of improvement, as there were at least four passes this year that Collins managed to get within his grasp, but for whatever reason couldn't hang on to.  Nitpicking, of course, but plays like this don't have the same impact as plays like this.  Other than that, though, Collins has turned into a premier safety in the NFL, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

#27 Anthony Smith

Player Progression: stagnate

Team Standing: diminished role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: low

When the injuries started piling up in 2010, the Packers looked to the free agent pool to find relief.  As luck would have it, they found a safety who had actually spent some time with the team during the 2009 pre-season.  During the time since, though, Smith had bounced around to St. Louis and Jacksonville, getting waived after a few months with each franchise.

A 3rd round pick in 2006, Smith found the field often as a rookie with Pittsburgh.  His hard-hitting style meshed well with the team's mentality, and helped make up for his deficiencies in coverage.  In Week 14 of the 2007 season, however, Smith famously ran his mouth against the then-undefeated Patriots and, if you look closely enough at the video, you can see #27 get burned again and again and again.  He was benched in week 15, and he hasn't been the same ever since.

Smith is a player who's too slow to be a defensive back, too small to be a linebacker, and too undisciplined to contribute in any meaningful way.  He can do one thing adequately (hit people), but his skill in this area doesn't cover up his weaknesses.  If he was ok with being a full-time special teams player (a la Jarrett Bush), then he could have some value.  But don't count on it, and don't count on Smith making it through another training camp.

#20 Atari Bigby

Player Progression: progress

Team Standing: diminished role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: low

Bigby is, quite simply, a poor man's Bob Sanders with better coverage skills and an equally thick medical file.  He can absolutely drill people, and for a while had a knack for creating turnovers.  Unfortunately, his injury history has rendered him a bit player in a system that simply doesn't need him anymore.  

If he has a good camp, he might have some trade value or provide valuable depth.  If he stays healthy, that is.

#26 Charlie Peprah

Player Progression: stagnate

Team Standing: diminished role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: high

Where did the Old Charlie Peprah go?  You know, the Charlie Peprah who was a special teams player and a disaster at safety?  When did this impostor arrive, with his improved tackling, coverage skills, football acumen, and general adequacy?

Maybe it was coaching, or something just clicked in his head, but Peprah was successful at one of the toughest tasks on the defense: don't suck.  With players like Woodson, Williams, Collins, and Shields in the secondary, offenses would target Peprah as the weak link in the defense.  Peprah never played like a weak link, though, as he was more than serviceable in both coverage and run support.

WIth Morgan Burnett coming off of an injury and the possibility of Charles Woodson eventually moving to safety, Peprah won't play as many snaps next year, and he might start half as many games.  But he proved that he can fill in when the occasion calls for it, and should return (with a spiffy new deal, of course) as the top backup at both safety positions.

#42 Morgan Burnett

Player Progression: progress

Team Standing: expanded role

Likelihood of Long-Term Retention: average to high

Burnett exceeded everyone's expectations by winning the starting strong safety job in training camp.  He had shown considerable ball skills and was a dependable tackler, and seemed to be the best option for plugging the hole in the secondary at SS.  

A torn ACL in week 4 against Detroit scuttled his rookie season, but now that he's five months removed from the injury, he figures to have another 3-5 months of rehab until getting back to where he started from.  As long as Green Bay's training staff isn't burnt out from all the overtime they worked in 2010, Burnett should make a full recovery and will have the 2011 training camp as an opportunity to re-win the starting job.  He might not be ready to go right away (see: Barnett, Nick, 2010), but I'm taking a positive view on his rehab.

Josh Bell, Josh Gordy, Anthony Levine, Michael Greco: All practice squad guys; if they see the field during the season, assume that the worst has happened.

* * *

All told, Green Bay has one of the best defensive secondaries in all of football, made better by the exotic schemes drawn up by coordinator Dom Capers.  Players in their prime include Nick Collins and Tramon Williams, the up-and-comers are represented by Sam Shields and Morgan Burnett, and there's still room for role players like Charlie Peprah and (gulp) Jarrett Bush.  

The big question here is: how do we plan for Charles Woodson's eventual decline?  Exacerbated by his recent history of foot injuries, I think he'll start to show signs this season (if he didn't already this past season) that he's no longer going to be able to support the defense in his Superman role.  Every once in a while, he'll be a step slow in pursuit, a second late on a blitz, or an angle too shallow or too sharp in pass coverage.  It won't be consistent, but it will be nagging us in the backs of our heads.

For this reason alone, I think that defensive back is a position important to re-stock this year.  Your top non-Woodson guys for the next five years won't be changing, which will help the eventual transition.  But there will be a major transition, as the Packers will eventually be forced to play a more conventional defensive scheme due to personnel limitations.  I would recommend jettisoning any prospects that haven't shown enough promise (here's looking at you, Pat Lee and Anthony Smith) and bring in a few young players that are able to fill a specific role particularly well.  Perhaps not a first- or second-rounder, but anywhere between rounds 3-5 might be a good place to look.

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