Where will Charles Woodson
line up in the secondary this season for the Green Bay Packers?
The answer to that question, however, should be secondary to this one: Will rookie Casey Hayward be ready to play?
It's conceivable that Woodson will join Morgan Burnett at safety when the Packers run their base defense. They did that often enough last season with their "corner okie" package in which Sam Shields moved into the lineup at cornerback and Woodson moved to safety in place of Charlie Peprah.
The Packers' base defense, however, isn't really their base defense anymore. The Packers have lined up in their pass-focused nickel — five defensive backs and two defensive linemen rather than four defensive backs and three defensive linemen — about 65 percent of the time over the last two years.
In nickel, Woodson plays the slot, a position that's a whole other game than playing cornerback on the outside of the formation. The slot corner needs exceptional quickness, since the slot receiver is free to go left or right. The slot corner also needs to be an exceptional tackler, since he's lined up close to the formation and can be used as an extra run defender and blitzer.
That's not Tramon Williams or Shields. In terms of tackling, they were two of the six worst cornerbacks in the league last season, as ranked by ProFootballFocus.com's formula of missed tackles per tackle attempt.
Hayward, however, showed that physical presence while at Vanderbilt, and some scouts considered Hayward as a possibility to play safety. As a sophomore, he became the first cornerback in Vanderbilt history to lead the team in tackles for losses (8.5), and he led the nation's cornerbacks in tackles for losses as a senior (7.5). That goes with his seven interceptions (tied for SEC lead), 17 passes defensed (SEC lead) and 1.39 yards allowed per passing attempt (national lead) as a senior.
"He made plays. He's a playmaker," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said on Wednesday. "He understands concepts. You can't run a concept on him a number of times. If he's in the right coverage, he knows how to go get the ball. He can play inside or outside. He's just a really smart, solid, good football player that gives you the ability to play him at a number of different positions because of his football IQ."
If Hayward can take over Woodson's role as nickel corner, that would free up Woodson to become a full-time safety. If not, defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to play matchup football, mixing and matching his personnel against who's lining up on offense like he's done in the past.
"Charles will be doing a lot of things for us," Capers said. "We've got a lot of different personnel groups. More so than anybody else, he plays all over the field. Up to this time, he's played corner, he's played nickel, he's played dime, he's played safety, he's played linebacker. He's played them all. I think that what we'll do is we'll see where he is and we'll use him as a matchup guy, and that changes from week to week."
Hayward called Woodson "one of the best players of all-time." A smart guy and a film junkie, Hayward's focus is learning the in's and out's of the defense so that he's ready for whatever role he plays.
"I'm not a ‘me' guy, I'm a ‘team' guy," he said. "Whatever they ask me to do, I'm going to be willing to do that. Just coming in here and learning the playbook will help me a lot in being able to make plays, and that's what you need: Go out and make plays. I think I'm going to be able to do that, but I'm going to take my role with whatever comes with it."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.