The first camp battle highlighted the battle royale at the safety spot. The battle for starting safety i probably one of two or three camp battles that people will really pay attention to this year. Makes sense, there is a big hole to fill with the departure of Nick Collins and someone will need to step up in order for the defense to get back to what it was when Collins was in the line up. Add in the drama around moving Woodson, and you have a recipe for great entertainment.
Behind this camp battle though another one is brewing. There are whispers of it in the reports from minicamps. The smoke from the fire can be seen in the distance, and the results of this camp battle may change the defense more than safety battle will. I'm talking about the free for all that is going to be happening at the cornerback spot.
Right now there are plenty of good CB's on the Packers roster, but really only one position nailed down. It's safe to assume that Tramon Williams will be a starting CB. After that things get hazy. Where will Charles Woodson play? Will Sam Shields slip down the depth chart? How is Davon House looking? Will Casey Hayward transition to the NFL well enough to compete for playing time? Why in the world is Jarrett Bush lining up in the two or three position in practices?
All of these questions highlight a battle that could rage beyond training camp and move over into the season as four viable starting corners (and Jarrett Bush) push for playing time in what looks increasingly as a nickle base defense.
Let's meet the competitors....
The Incumbent: Sam Shields.
Biggest reason he will be the starter: Shields returns to 2010 form. Right now the Packers have seen two sides of Sam Shields. There was the rookie who came out of no where and led the coaches to believe he could be one of the best corners in the league. Shields has to get back to that level of production in order to secure a starting spot this year. That means he has to improve his cover skills, develop better instincts, and/or become a better tackler. If he can do this then Whitt was probably not far off from his assessment last year, Shields can become a great corner.
Biggest reason he won't be the starter: Shields stays at his 2011 form. Remember I said the Packers saw two sides of Shields? Well the other half of that story was what was seen last year. That was a raw corner who struggled in coverage and struggled even more in tackling. Last year Shields had the luxury of only competing against the likes of Pat Lee and Bush to keep his job once House went down early in the year. This year he won't be a lucky with House back and Hayward there as well. He has to stay sharp, earn his keep, and improve his craft. If he doesn't expect Shields to fall down the depth chart.
Last year's challenger: Davon House
Biggest reason he will be the starter: House displays the total picture. Last year House was making waves in camp. He was a little raw and didn't really know the playbook, but the staff liked his physical tools. House was making some head ways, but then his season was cut short with a knee injury. This year House is back, he's healed up, and he's had time and offseason practices to familiarize himself with the playbook. If he can put his physical tools, time with the playbook, and opportunity available to him together then it's foreseeable that he can play his way into the #2 or 3 role on the depth chart. He may not be a ballhawk like Shields or Hayward, but he should be able to tackle, cover, and disrupt passes. The current CB corp needs more guys like him.
Biggest reason he won't be the starter: There are still holes in his game. House is an interesting guy in the current cornerback group. Woodson and Williams are the proven vets who have showed they can be relied on to cover the best WR's in the business. Shields has superior speed to make up for some of his mistakes and can make some plays happen. Hayward is suppose to be a ball hawk and should make plays as well. House is just solid. He's big and tough. He's not flashy though unlike many of these other guys. If that generally solid play isn't consistent he probably won't shine enough compared to some of the other players in order to win that job and could slip down the depth chart as well. Look for this to be the case if he still hasn't completely recovered from his knee injury.
The fresh face: Casey Hayward
Biggest reason he will be the starter: Hayward becomes the best ball hawk of the bunch. When you are talking about a rookie beating out veterans (well veterans who aren't terrible) then you typically see the rookie plays to his strengths which also correspond to something the position group needs. Hayward doesn't have top speed and doesn't have top cover skills. He does have a great sense for where the ball is and making a play on it. This may be enough to make a push for the #2 or #3 CB, but Hayward would need to make some eye popping plays in practice and in the preseason.
Biggest reason he will not be the starter: Hayward is too green. There are a few positions where experience is critical. Players at these positions don't typically take the league by storm as a rookie and need time and coaching to get use to the complexities of the NFL level at their respective position. Cornerback is typically one of those positions. With all the coverages, audibles, techniques, and skills needed to be successful at the position it can take a few years to learn. Hayward, while being an interesting prospect, probably will find himself here and not get a starting spot because of this....especially in light of the fact that he is competing against two veterans who have been in the system for one to two years.
The Walking Nightmare: Jarrett Bush
Biggest reason he will be the starter: Injuries and possibility the end of the world. Bush is what he is at this point in his career. He's okay in spot duty. He's a surprisingly good blitzer. He's great at special teams. He's not a guy the Packers want to rely on down in and down out. If he becomes the starter, even as the nickleback, then there are problems.
Biggest reason he will not be the starter: Because he's Jarrett Bush. See the above paragraph.
Biggest reason one will become the starter: He is hungrier than most. Sometimes guys like this come out of nowhere and take a hold of a job. The main reason a guy can do this is sheer will (and maybe a little bit of luck). It could happen.
Biggest reason one will not become the starter: Too much competition. Admit it, when I listed these two guys you said "Who?" Yeah, exactly. These guys are probably camp bodies who are going to have a tough time making the roster let alone a starting role.
The Final Twist: Brandian Ross
Ross is interesting. He came to the Packers as an undrafted free agent last year and played pretty well in the preseason. He actually started to get a small following like Vic So'oto and for a while it looked like he was going to make the team. It didn't quite happen, but he has had time to develop his craft and learn the defense. He may just be the dark horse in this race who could surprise people.