Too Expensive, Too Old or Too Valuable?

Williams (Maddie Meyer - Getty Images)

Those are the questions surrounding veteran cornerback Tramon Williams, who came on strong down the stretch for the Packers. Williams is one of the oldest cornerbacks in the league and his contract could provide some needed cap relief. Is he part of the problem or part of the solution?

Tramon Williams isn't young and he isn't inexpensive.

What he might be is irreplaceable.

Williams will turn 31 on March 16. For the final year of his contract, he's owed $7.5 million in base salary and roster and workout bonuses, and has a cap number of $9.5 million. That's a lot of money for an aging player.

Williams, however, was one of the team's best defenders down the stretch. After going without an interception in the first nine games of this season to extend his drought to 25 games (including the 2012 playoffs), Williams intercepted four passes in the final eight games of 2013 (including playoffs).

"I think Tramon's play has increased since the New York game until this game," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said before the playoff game against San Francisco, in which Williams turned the tide with a second-quarter interception. "Everybody asks me about the 2010 Tramon (when he intercepted a total of nine passes). That's what you're seeing. He played no better in 2010 than he's played since the New York game. That's what he is right now. That's what everybody (media) has been waiting for."

At his age, Williams is practically a dinosaur. Among the 64 starting cornerbacks at the end of the season, only five were age 31 or older. Knowing that Father Time eventually wins every race, Williams tried to stay ahead by taking up yoga. He did it throughout the offseason and continued with twice-weekly sessions during the season.

"I've done it on my own but you talk to a couple veteran guys in the offseason," Williams said late in the season. "I actually got a chance to talk to (Terrell Owens) in the offseason. He said he got into it and how much it prolongs your career and things of that nature. I said, ‘OK, that's a good sign. Let me try it out.' I did and I came up to OTAs and was going through those things and was feeling really good, really loose. You can just feel the difference. I continued it during the season and it's been working. I've been feeling really good."

The results, Williams said, included added flexibility and increased mental focus.

"Since the midway point, he really started to play like we've wanted Tramon to play," Whitt said. "If it's yoga, hell, I'll go pay for it."

Williams' second-half rebirth perhaps changes his future with the team. Due to age, money and performance, Williams was seen — from an outside perspective, anyway — as expendable, especially with Sam Shields, Davon House, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde and Jarrett Bush filling the depth chart.

However, there's no guarantee that the Packers can afford Shields. House was benched late in the season and might never fulfill his obvious potential. Hayward barely played because of lingering hamstring problems. Hyde flashed toughness and instincts but his speed is a concern. The always-tough Bush never played better that he did this season but is more of a role player than a featured part of the game plan.

Presumably, the Packers will ask Williams to restructure his contract. Presumably, Williams and his agent will have a good feel for whether there's a better deal to be had elsewhere.

"I feel that I was playing well," Williams said on Monday. "I was coming on, felt great. I felt better than I have in a couple of years now. That played a big, big factor. When I am healthy, I feel I can compete with anybody out there. I feel I am a top DB in this league. I mean, I'm healthy now, that's all I can say now. I've played through the injury thing and you learn to appreciate being fully healthy. And when you can do that, when you have that type of appreciation, you just go out and play. It doesn't matter. I just played like I know I can."

After a slow start to this season, due in part to a knee injury that cost him the preseason, Williams was tremendous down the stretch. Not only did he raise his level of play, but he elevated his role as a leader. While the defense as a whole never figured things out after a promising start, the Packers recorded eight interceptions over the final six games — at least one in each of those games. That's compared to four interceptions in the first 11 games.

In that light, perhaps Williams' stronger voice was the next stage of his career. For his first couple of seasons with the team, he was mentored by Woodson and Al Harris. Now, it's Williams serving as mentor.

"He's always been a good communicator and he's really taken the role of Woodson," Whitt said recently. "Where Wood would stop the meetings and say, ‘OK, I see this, this, this and that,' Tramon has done that more."

It's that leadership that must be considered by the team.

The Packers perpetually are one of the NFL's youngest teams. Among the players cleaning out their lockers after the loss to San Francisco, only five were age 30 or older: free agents-to-be Ryan Pickett (34) and John Kuhn (31), plus A.J. Hawk (30), Aaron Rodgers (30) and Williams (30). Other than Bush (29), there wasn't a defensive back on the roster older than the ultra-quiet Shields (26).

Considering Williams' second-half standard of play and his leadership, he seems to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

"Talent will only get you so far," Williams said. "You've got to adjust to the game, adjust to the tactics, prepare well, find a way to prepare and get that edge on the field. Realistically, everyone's good on this level. ...

"A lot of guys thought they knew how to prepare when they were in college and whatnot, but then they get into the league and you find out that it's a different level to preparation. That's what you're faced with with young guys. Even though we always say it's a young league, yeah, it's a young league but it's an old league, too, because the old guys make the league go. That's the guys who've been there before, who know how to prepare, who mold the young guys. That's what they're there for."


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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