Green Bay Packers: What Will Charles Woodson's Role Be When He Returns?

Marques EversollAnalyst IDecember 20, 2012

Charles Woodson hasn't played since October. How good will the Packers defense be when he's ready to return to the field?
Charles Woodson hasn't played since October. How good will the Packers defense be when he's ready to return to the field?Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Packers defensive back Charles Woodson hasn't played since the Oct. 21 game against the St. Louis Rams.

Woodson suffered a broken collarbone and was initially expected to be out about six weeks. In total, Woodson has missed eight weeks and seven games since his injury.

He's expected to be medically cleared to play either this week against the Tennessee Titans or next week for the Packers' game against the Minnesota Vikings.

Prior to getting hurt, Woodson had a complex role in Green Bay's defense. In the base 3-4 scheme, Woodson played strong safety alongside Morgan Burnett, and he bounced inside to play cornerback in the slot when the Packers were in their nickel package.

But since Woodson has been out, rookie cornerback Casey Hayward has emerged as one of the Packers' top playmakers in the secondary. Hayward leads the team with six interceptions, and according to Pro Football Focus, he's been the second-best cornerback in the league this season, trailing only Chicago's Charles Tillman.

There are 112 cornerbacks in the NFL that have played at least 25 percent of their team's defensive snaps. The PFF grading system has four Green Bay cornerbacks in the top 39—Hayward, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Davon House.

Williams is an every-game starter for the Packers, while Shields and House have taken turns in the starting lineup across from Williams. Hayward can line up either inside or outside, but he's currently one of the most effective slot cornerbacks in football, despite being only a rookie.

Woodson, 36, isn't the athlete that he once was. Prior to the season, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged (via ESPN Wisconsin) that Woodson may not be capable of wearing as many hats, saying, "I don't think it's feasible to move Charles around as much as we have in the past."

Now, armed with perhaps the deepest set of cornerbacks in football without Woodson, the veteran defensive back may stick at safety and not move at all.

In the base defense, rookie Jerron McMillian and second-year player M.D. Jennings have filled Woodson's shoes at strong safety. McMillian has proved to be stout against the run, while Jennings has been slightly more reliable in the passing game. Neither has Woodson's play-making ability or veteran instincts.

Woodson's presence could take the Packers defense to the next level, as strong safety is currently the only true weak spot in Green Bay's secondary.

At free safety, third-year player Morgan Burnett has emerged as a reliable player in the middle of the Packers defense. After a poor performance in Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers, Burnett has been steady throughout the season.

Pairing Burnett with a veteran like Woodson could be exactly what this defense needs to propel the Packers to a deep playoff run.