When Bashaud Breeland signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, a mild panic set in among some Green Bay Packers fans. Gone was the veteran presence in the cornerback room from the second half of last season, and on a cheap contract to boot.
The Packers have talent at the cornerback position. There’s no question about that. Kevin King oozes athleticism and was effective in containing Julio Jones as a rookie. Jaire Alexander was a first-team All-Rookie player in 2018 and possesses swagger and toughness galore. Josh Jackson needs to continue developing, but he led the FBS in interceptions in 2017 and was widely considered a great value as a second-round pick. Even Tony Brown, added after final cuts last summer, brings attitude, toughness, and speed to the equation.
However, each player comes with questions. For King, it’s his injury history after playing in just 15 games through two seasons. Alexander missed a bit of time, though he looks like a star in the making. Jackson had an inconsistent rookie year as he continues to adjust to the speed of the NFL and to playing man coverage. Brown remains a raw player.
Each of these players has two or fewer years of experience in the NFL. That’s why Tramon Williams will end up being a crucial part of this year’s plan for the Packers.
After the Packers traded Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Williams moved from cornerback to become the team’s starting free safety. This offseason, with the Packers facing continued questions in the secondary, it is clear that Williams will be back at corner once again. General manager Brian Gutekunst said as much in an interview with Michael Cohen of The Athletic this week at the NFL Annual Meeting:
“I think naturally Tramon is more of a corner, but he can do it all,” Gutekunst said. “He’s such an unselfish player and such a pro that I think he’ll (go) wherever he fits in or whatever makes the team best. I think naturally he’s more of a corner. I think we all thought with Tramon’s skill set he was able to play the post, but we signed him as a corner.”
The emphasis on this is the last clause of the last sentence: “we signed him as a corner.” That is as straight an answer as one can expect to get from an NFL GM about the plans for a player. Thus, the Packers appear set to roll with Williams as their third cornerback, playing an active role both in the slot and on the boundary when the team goes to their nickel personnel grouping.
However, this plan would leave the Packers with continued questions at safety. If Mike Pettine chooses to use Adrian Amos as more of an in-the-box player, as Cohen speculates, the Packers will need a new body or two to patrol the deep middle of the field. Josh Jones is demonstrably not that player, and of the other safeties on the roster at present, only Raven Greene has ever had so much as a single notable play. Thus, the Packers could really use a defensive back of some kind who can make an impact on day one.
But the convenient part is that, thanks to Williams’ positional versatility, that player could be either a corner or a free safety. If a Nasir Adderley, Juan Thornhill, or Darnell Savage looks like the best pick when the Packers are on the clock? Then Williams returns to a full-time cornerback role as expected. If the team values a cornerback more highly instead? Grab him and keep Williams at safety. It’s all about keeping the options open.
For the record, this year’s draft class seems to set up well for the Packers to go safety. Those aforementioned names, plus a few others like Iowa’s Amani Hooker, all look like great options for Green Bay somewhere among their picks at 30, 44, and 75. The cornerback class is far less exciting this year, and it’s likely that a safety would be the better value any time in those early picks. Still, the ability to draft what the board dictates is a hallmark of the Packers’ philosophy.
One can argue that releasing Williams and signing Breeland to a deal like the one he signed in Kansas City would have been the better option. Doing so would be salary cap-neutral at worst, and would have left the Packers with a solid veteran starter on the boundary to pair with Alexander in the slot and King on the opposite side. Plus, Williams is now 36 years old compared to Breeland at 27.
However, the team apparently saw Breeland as strictly a cornerback. It was Williams who moved to safety when the team needed it, not Breeland — who was ready to play after sitting his first few weeks with the team. For better or worse, the Packers went with the more versatile player over the younger corner.
In retaining Williams, the Packers afforded themselves flexibility in this year’s draft, something that has become a theme this offseason. By adding one starting safety and a pair of pass-rushers, Gutekunst no longer needs to find players at those specific positions who can contribute on day one. Yes, the Packers need some draft picks to help out right away in 2019, but the versatility of the players on the roster — on defense in particular — should allow the team to work a player with just about any skill set into the rotation.