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Crossroads In The Defensive Backfield

It started out as an event that went beyond football; Al Harris' lacerated spleen in week 3 against Dallas was downright frightening. Not only his career was in danger of being over, but it was a serious health issue that could have grave consequences. The only other comparable injury in recent history is that of Chris Simms, which was career-threatening. Thankfully for Harris, his was not fully ruptured, so he was in no real danger. But it was possible that his season would be over.

Remarkably, Harris' season gets closer and closer to resuming. It was reported just yesterday that Al Harris returned to practice for the first time since the injury. He's currently listed as doubtful for the Indianapolis game, but could return as soon as November 2nd against the Titans.

The most likely plan for reintroducing Al Harris to the defense is to have him serve as the nickel cornerback until his conditioning returns to normal, and then decide who to start opposite Charles Woodson. Against Tennessee, this would be a fine tactic to use, given their relative lack of talent at the WR position. But sooner or later, we're going to have to make a choice.

Some of you may remember my post from late September where I looked at the future of the CB position. I wrote it to analyze all of the possible replacements for Harris in the lineup and concluded that Tramon Wiliams was the most likely replacement. My final verdict was that he was the "best option right now, but on a short leash."

58% of you voted that Williams was the best replacement for Harris. Will Blackmon, who has struggled in the nickel role so far, was second with 33%. And Tramon Williams certainly lived up to our standards; in his last 3 starts, he has amassed 14 tackles, 4 passes defensed, and 3 interceptions.

Needless to say, the numbers support the idea of Tramon Williams as a starting NFL cornerback. But what happens when Al Harris gets back to full health? Who gets the starting job? Although Harris has had his fair share of struggles, he's still a great cover corner and is a starting-caliber player. So do we give the job back to the grizzled veteran, or do we stick with the new kid?

The way I see it, Harris and Williams are two very different players at their position, and the best way to compare them is using the facts.

  • Size: Harris is 6-1, 190 lbs, and Williams is 5-11, 190 lbs. Harris has a full two inches over Williams in pure height, but he also has a distinct advantage in another area: wingspan. Harris is well known for his long arms, which let him jam the reciever while maintaining further separation at the line, not to mention giving him the ability to swat nearly any pass in his area. Williams isn't a weakling, but he doesn't have the same type of strong, lanky build that Harris has used to shut down recievers. Advantage: Harris
  • Strength: Both players check in at the same weight, and we've already established Harris' strength at the line of scrimmage. However, one way we can look at strength is by looking at tackling totals. Over the last 5 seasons, Harris has averaged 48 tackles per year. Tramon Williams over the last two (including this season thus far) averages 20, but in a severely limited role. This measurement could change if Williams got more time on the field, but right now we have to go for the veteran. Advantage: Harris
  • Speed: Arguably the most important aspect of a corner's game. Al Harris clocked in at 4.45 in the 40-yard dash, but at 33 years old, he doesn't have that top-end speed anymore. He makes up for it by playing tight coverage and relying on his long strides to cover ground. Williams, on the other hand, had an abysmal 40-yard dash time at 4.59. But he's shown that numbers aren't everything, as he's proved that he has the recovery speed to keep up with recievers and contribute in the return game, where speed is a premium. No matter how you spin it, Tramon Williams is faster. Advantage: Williams
  • Coverage Ability: Harris is a tough matchup for any reciever. He's well known for his physical style of play (our friends over at the Daily Norseman call it "dirty"...and not without good reason), and he just makes it difficult to complete passes. Over his career in Green Bay, he's averaged 12.5 passes defensed and 2.5 inteceptions per year. Given his short stint as a starter, Tramon Williams doesn't have those kind of stats. However, he has shown a penchant for making good things happen: in 4 career starts, Williams has 4 interceptions. He's the playmaker in coverage that Al Harris is slowly moving away from, and if he can keep it up, that will be his strongest bid for taking the starting job. Push...for now.

I'll be honest: I have no idea who should get the starting job. Chad Johnson Ocho Cinco, Roy Williams, Terrence Newman, and teammate Charles Woodson have sang Al Harris' praises in the past. People around here (including myself) have sang Tramon Williams' praises during Harris' absence. Both are quality players, and I'm glad that Green Bay has the problem of deciding which player is too good to keep on the bench, rather than which one is performing worse.