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The Packers have a key decision to make on Sam Shields, a restricted free agent.

DBs: Packers offseason by position

Players under contract
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
29
Casey Hayward
CB
5-11
192
23
R
Vanderbilt
38
Tramon Williams
CB
5-11
191
29
6
La. Tech
42
Morgan Burnett
S
6-1
209
24
3
Georgia Tech
22
Jerron McMillian
S
5-11
203
23
R
Maine
24
Jarrett Bush
CB
6-0
200
28
7
Utah State
31
Davon House
CB
6-0
195
23
2
New Mexico St.
CB
James Nixon
CB
6-0
180
25
R
California (Pa.)
43
M.D. Jennings
S
6-0
195
24
2
Arkansas St.
28
Sean Richardson
S
6-2
216
23
R
Vanderbilt
41
Chaz Powell
S
6-0
203
25
R
Penn State
 
Restricted free agents
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
37
Sam Shields
CB
5-11
184
25
3
Miami (Fla.)

The good news:  While the group lost its leader last week when 15-year NFL veteran – and likely Pro Football Hall of Famer – Charles Woodson was released after seven seasons in Green Bay, there is still some talented depth in the back end. After the season, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt essentially said that there will be a four-way competition at cornerback with Williams, Shields, Hayward and House all in the mix for the two starting spots, plus the third cornerback spot in the nickel. Williams bounced back from an injury-marred, disappointing 2011 season to play more like himself in 2012, but he did not recapture his 2010 form, when he looked like a shutdown, elite corner. That means that Shields, who missed six weeks with a sprained ankle but played extremely well when healthy, and Hayward, who took over Woodson’s slot corner spot in sub packages after Woodson’s broken collarbone, will be nipping at Williams’ heels. House also flashed ability and even was the leader in the clubhouse for the No. 2 CB spot in training camp before a shoulder injury in the preseason opener derailed his starting bid. He underwent surgery this offseason to repair the shoulder and with his physical style of play figures to be in the mix as well.

“I wouldn’t say (Williams) is on the downside, I would say that Sam’s picked up his level of play, Casey probably played better than any of you all expected him to play and probably played better than I expected him to play. So the competition in the room has gotten better,” Whitt said. “I think Tramon, he graded out pretty well in most games. He covered pretty good. Just the competition in the room has improved.

“I believe in not allowing anybody to be comfortable. We don’t work in a business that you can get comfortable and so the guys, we’ll always say, their play will dictate who runs through the tunnel. The guys that play the best will play, that practice the best, that have the best tests. We’re about winning championships, and we fell short. And that’s our charge. We’re going to put the guys out there that are doing the best. If it’s a different guy each week, that’s what it will be. We’re going to do that.”

The bad news:  Although a group that gave up an astonishing 71 pass plays of 20 yards or more in 2011 improved, there’s still some questions at safety, especially in the wake of Woodson’s release. His departure means Jennings and McMillian, who shared the job while Woodson was out with the broken collarbone, will duke it out for the starting job alongside Burnett, who looked more comfortable in his third season but didn’t reach the Pro Bowl-caliber level of play that his coaches believe he’s capable of delivering. A safety in the draft is also an option.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the team still has not adequately replaced Nick Collins, whose neck injury in Week 2 of the 2011 season has apparently turned out to be career-ending, as the Packers medical staff anticipated. None of the other 31 teams have brought in Collins, deeming him too big of a medical risk. Meanwhile, the Packers still miss him greatly, and whatever Burnett’s potential is, he’s not in the same class as the former three-time Pro Bowl pick. At least, not yet. In 2012, Burnett was the only defensive player to play all 1,259 snaps and ranked second on the team in tackles (137) while registering two sacks and two interceptions.

“He’s still a young player,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “Productivity, I think the numbers speak for themselves — 100-and-some tackles and two years in a row didn’t miss a snap. Durability, consistency — i think that says a lot about the type of player he is. He’s still young and I think his potential still hasn’t been reached. I think he has a chance to be a really good football player. The mental aspect was so much better than (2011) in terms of communicating and commanding the defense, particularly with Wood out there and another new guy in Jerron and M.D. He took on that leadership role and he did a good job at that. We just need to keep him growing in the right direction because we feel he can be one of our impact players on defense.”

The big question: Even though players rarely change teams in restricted free agency – the last time a player switched teams was in 2008, and Bush was the last Packers player to even sign an offer sheet, in 2009 – the Packers still have a decision to make on Shields, the biggest name among their five restricted free agents. They have three options: Use a high tender (worth $2.879 million, with first-round compensation if he were to depart); use a middle tender (worth $2.023 million, with second-round compensation)l or use a low tender (worth $1.323 million, with compensation matching the player’s original draft round). Because Shields (and the rest of the Packers’ restricted free agents) were undrafted rookies, using the low tender would mean the team would get no compensation if another team signed him to an offer sheet and the Packers did not match. That seemingly would eliminate the low tender from consideration. Then again, when Bush got an offer from Tennessee in ’09, the Packers simply matched it and kept him. Shields’ performance in 2012 after a disappointing second season certainly makes him an important defensive cog.

“Sam’s performance this year was comparable if not better than Tramon’s in 2010,” Whitt said. “Just go back and watch how he played and the impact that he had. I think he has more or at least tied the record for playoff interceptions here. He decreased his missed tackles by half. That was a question that everybody had about the young man. Will he hit? Well, in my opinion, he’s not only (shown that), he and (Bush) are the most physical corners that we have. (Shields) is the best tackling one. And he put that on film. That’s not me talking. Go back and look at the film and evaluate it yourself. The only reason I’m talking about him is he took so much criticism about the way he performed last year and through training camp, and to come back and play, especially the last six games, the way that he’s played I think is very encouraging to what he can be in the future.”

Offseason outlook: With Woodson gone, the secondary is illustrative of the Packers’ draft-and-develop philosophy. Burnett, Hayward, McMillian and House are all draft picks, while Shields, Jennings and Richardson are all original undrafted rookie free-agent signees. Williams and Bush came into the league as undrafted guys with other teams and were signed or claimed cheap. It’s reasonable to expect the Packers to continue that approach in the back end, perhaps by drafting a safety early to line up alongside Burnett and perhaps finally adequately replace Collins. General manager Ted Thompson likes to say that you can never have enough big guys (offensive, defensive linemen) and never have enough guys who can cover. It appears the Packers want to be younger, more athletic and faster in their secondary, and on defense as a whole, in the wake of the season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss to San Francisco, when quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense put up a stunning 579 yards.

“I feel good about our guys. I’ve seen us make great strides this year,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “It didn’t look that way (against the 49ers), but I’ve seen us make great strides, and I think with the number of young people we’ve got that we can move forward with this group. Obviously, you always want to add a few things here or there, but what I hope is that game’s not a total evaluation of what this group has done this year, because I think there were some very good things that were done.”

Next: Special teams.

– Jason Wilde

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