Now for the seventh and final positional analysis of the Green Bay Packers: Defensive Backs. I began this series on player personnel grades for 2008 and outlook for 2009 before the draft and free agency, so here I will examine only those players on the roster in 2008.
CB Charles Woodson, 6’1”, 202 lbs., 11 years experience
2008 stats: seven interceptions (169 return yards, two touchdowns), 20 passes defensed, one fumble forced, one fumble recovered, three sacks (14 yards), 79 tackles (66 solo)
If you are a wide receiver, you do not want to see this man crouching in front of you. Woodson is one of the five elite cornerbacks in the NFL, and if he is on your side of the field, there is a good chance the ball will not get to you.
All of the above Pro Bowl statistics were accomplished playing through a broken toe, an injury that severely limits the necessary changes of direction required of a man-to-man cover cornerback. Woodson is not only deserving of an A in 2008, but at only 32 years old, has enough left in the tank to play at a high level into the next decade (B+).
CB Al Harris, 6’1”, 190 lbs., 11 years experience
2008 stats: 12 passes defensed, 21 tackles (all solo)
Harris missed four-plus games due to injury and was limited in further games due to a spleen injury. It was his first season not playing every game, so while he is 34, there is no reason to think he cannot still play well: Harris made a trip to the Pro Bowl as an alternate and has been reliable and productive. Players rarely disappear that quickly.
However, he may have earned that trip to Hawaii partially on reputation: I can only give him a B- for 2008 because of missed games and slipping production.
With the development of a young Tramon Williams, who filled in during Harris' injury, I see Al's role diminishing. He will probably be only a nickelback—albeit likely the best in the league—by the end of the season (B- again, given he should play a full season).
CB Tramon Williams, 5’11”, 191 lbs., two years
2008: five interceptions (78 return yards), 14 passes defensed, one fumble recovery, two fumbles forced, 52 tackles (45 solo)
When Williams filled in for Harris, he struggled mightily in that first game against Dallas, but two weeks later against Atlanta came up with a touchdown-saving interception. Two weeks after that, he helped shut down one of the league's top passing games (229 yards, only 35 to the top two receivers), with the Packers defense scoring as much as the Colts offense (14 points).
Williams did a fantastic job playing a role he was not projected to play in 2008—only five players had more interceptions than a player who did not even start half the season. That is why Williams earned a B+ for 2008 and seems poised to take over the starting position in what promises to be one of the better position battles in training camp...his future rates an A-.
CB Will Blackmon, 6’0”, 206 lbs., two years
2008: one pass defensed, one fumble recovery, two fumbles forced, 17 tackles (16 solo)
Blackmon was pressed into more playing time last season because of the injuries to Harris and Pat Lee, but is really no more than a special teams player. He was a solid returner (three punt returns for touchdowns in two years) and led the special teams in tackles with 18.
He gets a C- for his pass coverage in 2008, and despite still developing, it is unlikely he will see action in the backfield in 2009 (future: C-). Lee was the team's second round pick in 2008 and will play if healthy; even newly-drafted Brandon Underwood will get a chance to show he is ready to play right away.
CB Pat Lee, 6’0”, 194 lbs., one year
2008: one pass defensed, one tackle (solo)
Lee was another of Ted Thompson's top picks to be an utter bust in his first year (along with two-year bust Justin Harrell and fellow 2008 pick Brian Brohm, who could not even beat out seventh rounder Matt Flynn for the backup quarterback spot). Because of his injury in a season almost anyone in the backfield could have contributed, he earns an F for 2008.
However, there is no reason to assume he will have Harrell's injury struggles, having been healthy every season at Auburn. He was the eighth cornerback drafted in 2008 and was generally considered a solid pick; his future rates a B- because he is still an unknown.
CB/S Jarrett Bush, 6’0”, 200 lbs., three years
2008: one pass defensed, one tackle (solo)
Setting aside my bias against him for trying to make a highlight reel in the NFC Championship Game in 2007 rather than falling on the fumble, Bush remains primarily a special teams player. He saw limited action against spread formations even though there were injuries to the unit.
Having little asked of him in pass coverage, it is hard to give him less than a C- for 2008 despite him having made almost no impact when he was on the field. His main role was in special teams, where he was among the team's five leading tacklers.
However, when you look at the Packers lack of special teams skill in 2008, perhaps losing Bush is not a loss. I see Underwood's drafting signaling the end of Bush's time in Green Bay, although his ability to play any backfield position might keep him around...a D- for his future.
S Nick Collins, 5’11”, 207 lbs., four years
2008: seven interceptions (295 return yards, three touchdowns), 18 passes defensed, one fumble forced, 99 tackles (77 solo)
Collins was tied for the team lead in interceptions and led in both return yards and scores. He appropriately made the Pro Bowl in 2008, despite playing through a back injury that limited his play, especially in October. Clearly, that earns him an A for 2008.
His future is bright, as he is in his mid-20's and has not peaked yet. However, there have been some rumblings that he is not happy with his contract.
While Ted Thompson's policy is supposed to be to save cap room (and he has more of it than almost any other team) to re-sign his own players, this is a deep position for the team, especially after they added Anthony Smith in the off-season.
My guess is the two sides will work this out for 2009, and thus Collins' immediate future is bright. There is every reason to expect he will continue to get better, especially if he is healthy: A.
S Atari Bigby, 5’11”, 213 lbs., three years
2008: one interception (seven return yards), three passes defensed, 31 tackles (20 solo)
Bigby only played seven games because of injury. Nevertheless, he made an impact when he was in, and receives a B for 2008. He makes mistakes because of being too aggressive, but is an intimidating hitter and a danger to make a play on the ball.
Not even 25 years old yet, his future is bright and his best years are ahead of him. I expect him to learn to pick his spots better and maybe be one of the ten best safeties in the league in a couple seasons (A-).
S Aaron Rouse, 6’4”, 223 lbs., two years
2008: two interceptions (136 return yards, one touchdown), three passes defensed, 68 tackles (44 solo)
Rouse is huge for a safety and still athletic enough to have a nose for the ball, as seen by his two interceptions and one score despite missing two games and starting only a few. He receives a B- for his safety play in 2008, and was the team’s second-leading tackler on special teams, as well.
With only two seasons under his belt, Rouse will only get better. He already is good enough to start on almost any other team in the NFL, and did that well for the Packers in 2008; his future rates a B+.
S Charlie Peprah, 5’11”, 203 lbs., three years
2008: two passes defensed, 19 tackles (8 solo)
Peprah is a serviceable safety who also is a special teams contributor (top five in special teams tackles in 2008). He played in only 13 games and rarely was in at safety, being pressed into play only because of injuries to Collins and Bigby.
He was a weakness when he was in, at times being replaced with a cornerback playing safety; thus he gets a D+ for 2008. However, it should be noted that he played better than a fourth safety would be expected to in only his second year.
He will get better, but I suspect it will be in another uniform: Anthony Smith's arrival, the drafting of Underwood who can also play safety, and the presumed return to health of the unit probably means there is no room for a pedestrian player...his future with Green Bay is an F.
In 2008, the Packers secondary was the only bright spot on the defense. The team finished 12th in pass defense despite being 25th in sacks, meaning nearly all their success was due to coverage. They led the league in defensive scores and were tied for third in interceptions.
Clearly, the unit deserves an A- for 2008—were it not for the debacle against a very good Saints offense, it might have be an A+.
The team's future is brighter than their 2008 grade despite the aging of their top two cornerbacks. With Woodson clearly still being elite, Williams ready to step up, and Harris still being a good corner, the Packers may be the only defensive backfield in the league that can match up against their own wide receivers.
Add to that four safeties with starting experience and this is the deepest unit on any team in the league: A+.