The beginning of every season in the NFL is a time to start anew. During OTAs, rookies and newly-signed free agents look to make an initial name for themselves on the roster while establishing for themselves an identity in the locker room. The same thing applies to veterans on a roster as well. As Father Time imposes his will on helpless NFL rosters, superstars fade into the abyss while the rookies that used to carry the stars' equipment onto the field and buy the team dinner a few years back are now the new pillars in the locker room. Like anywhere else, the circle of life takes place inside NFL locker rooms as much as it does anywhere else.
Take a look at the Packers locker room - more specifically, the Packers' defensive secondary personnel. For the last seven years, Charles Woodson shined as the top dog and was the unquestioned leader of this group. While playing alongside talented individuals such as Al Harris, Nick Collins and Atari Bigby, Woodson stood out not only as one of the top players on the Packers but as one of the best defensive players in the NFL. During his time with the Packers, Woodson earned Defensive Player of the Year honors and won his first Super Bowl in his second appearance.
Over the past few seasons, the Charles Woodson that we grew accustomed to seeing started to fade away. He would get burned a little more than we were used to. Once a sure-handed tackler, opposing players began to break his tackles more. The injuries would pile on, most notably the collarbone issue. It was quite evident that the Charles Woodson we had once known was gone. He would eventually play a little more safety to aid his cause but eventually, in the end, it was time for Woodson and the Packers to move on.
With one of the most prominent leaders and one of the best overall defensive players of the past decade out of the Packers' locker room, naturally it has become someone else's turn to bear the torch and become the leader of this corps. The good thing for Packer fans is that there aren't players who are shy about assuming the position once held by the future Hall of Famer.
On Wednesday following OTAs, Tramon Williams donned a shirt bearing the famous Star Wars character Yoda. Why? It is because he feels that with his experience now, he is the Jedi Master in the Packer locker room, at least when it comes to the defensive backfield.
"I know the guys are going to look to me for guidance, and I will embrace that role. I will be the leader of these guys."
Confidence is something that Woodson never lacked and that confidence will bode well in Williams' push to emerge as the de facto leader of this group. However, another player has emerged over at the safety position, and he is looking to lead as well. Morgan Burnett, the former third-round pick out of Georgia Tech, has come on strong in the past two years and has impressed entering his fourth NFL season. Unlike Williams, Burnett believes that there is some time to pass before he is the leader of this group, but he insists on taking his road to leadership one year at a time until his time comes.
"I'm not Charles Woodson. Charles Woodson was a Hall of Fame player and I'm very thankful to have the opportunity to play alongside him, but right now, I have to come in and be the best Morgan that I can be."
These two, along with Sam Shields, are the three notable players that will need to lead this group as they move onward to the post-Woodson era. Williams has put in work for the last six years, accumulating career totals of 311 tackles and 22 interceptions. Last year was a bit of a quiet year for Williams, as he only pulled down two interceptions and racked up a solid 61 tackles. It wasn't a spectacular 2012 for him, but it definitely was a solid one. As he moves into his thirties, there is potential for a few more good seasons before age catches up with him. He says he is the leader of this group, however. Perhaps he knows that it is his time to shine with Woodson signing in Oakland this offseason.
Burnett on the other hand, is only 24 years old and has already led the Packers is tackling with 123 last season. He is completely healthy after playing all 1,228 snaps last season and while he hasn't (and probably shouldn't have) made Packer fans forget about the loss of Pro Bowler Nick Collins, at least one safety position seems to be in good hands these days. To date, Burnett has compiled 244 tackles and 6 interceptions as he heads into his fourth season in the NFL, numbers which appear to set him up well for a breakout season this year. While Williams had a relatively quite 2012, Burnett was forced onto the stage and shined under the bright lights at the position. Perhaps the same will be said of Williams with Woodson gone.
Those are just the numbers though, and to be clear, it is not all about tackles and interceptions. To really get a grip on these guys, you need to look at film for the intangibles. The way both read defenses is spectacular. Both men are phenomenal in picking up on the opposing rushing attack and have been solid in filling the gaps there, despite Williams' tentative tackling at the end of last season. Perhaps this is something they learned from Woodson, who was a fantastic run defender during his tenure in Green Bay.
This isn't the defensive backfield that we have been accustomed to seeing over the past couple of years. The winds of change have certainly had their way with the Packers' roster this offseason. While Burnett and Williams look to shine in 2013, the rest of this young defensive backfield will have to step up to define their own roles. Until then, who is the leader of the defensive secondary? Who will emerge? Again, time will only tell. Until then...let the speculation begin!