Coming into the 2010 off-season, the Green Bay Packers secondary looked to be in shambles. The defense had just given up 45 points to the Arizona Cardinals offense in their wild card playoff game, an unexpected end for the league's number two-ranked defense, largely due to their inability to stop the Cardinals passing attack. While the pass rush failed to reach quarterback Kurt Warner all game, beyond that the Packers secondary couldn't cover anyone. They where already without safety Derrick Martin and corner backs Al Harris, Will Blackmon, and Pat Lee; all of whom, had they been healthy, would have been on the field over what the Packers were left with. Then, the unreliable Atari Bigby went down, meaning backup, and predominately a special teams player, Matt Giordano, was forced to enter the game and the secondary had no chance.
Heading into the draft, both corner back and safety were talked about as areas of need for the Packers. However, the way the board fell, the Packers GM never had an opportunity to take a corner back during the 2010 Draft. He did trade up to get promising safety Morgan Burnett from Georgia Tech in the third round at pick 71. He gave up his third and fourth round picks to move up 15 spots and jump ahead of safety needy teams in Chicago and Miami to select Morgan. Thompson showed he was going to make sure he had competition, and at the very least a very capable backup behind safeties Nick Collins and Bigby.
The Packers also added two undrafted free agents with above average chances of making the roster. Cornerback Sam Shields, 5'10" 184 pounds with 4.3 speed is a converted receiver out of Miami who has played just one season at corner after starting 10 games in 2009. He has excellent kick return potential, and almost seems like a lock to make the team at this point no matter how unlikely that sounds.
They also got safety Anthony Levine out of Tennessee State signing him to a three-year deal after he participated in their rookie orientation over the weekend. The contact did not contain a signing bonus, so the Packers aren't risking anything but the fact that they signed him to a three-year deal, which makes you think they are going to give him a decent chance at making the roster. He certainly has the athletic ability to play in the NFL. At 5'11" 195 pounds, Levine ran a 4.43 40-yard dash, which would have tied for tops among safeties at the combine. He posted a respectable 35 inch vertical jump. He ran the 20-yard shuttle in 4.05, the three cone drill in 6.64 seconds, and the 60-yard shuttle in 10.97 seconds-all of which would have ranked number one among safeties at the combine.
Coming back from injury the Packers have corner backs Harris, Blackmon, and Lee. Harris, even at 35 and returning from a badly torn ACL, should not be counted out. He has documented his rehab on YouTube, and looks impressive. His determination to prove the doubters wrong should not be underestimated. He will either regain his staring job or return to the nickel back role he played so well for Philadelphia, which led the Packers to trade a second and fourth-round pick for him in 2002. Blackman and former second-round pick Lee have both been plagued by injuries throughout their careers. It's hard to know what to expect from these two unreliable players, but it's reasonable to expect that one of them will win the dime job. I'd put my money on Lee.
The Packers also have a large group of capable players returning and practice squad players, including corner backs Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Brandon Underwood, Josh Bell, D.J. Clark, and Trevor Ford, as well as safeties Bigby, Martin, Jarrett Bush, Charlie Peprah, and Khalil Jones. Woodson, Williams, and Bigby are known commodities, and likely are locks to make the roster, just as is Martin because of his special teams play. Underwood played some as a rookie in 2009 but needs to improve to keep his spot on the roster in 2010. Clark, Bell and Ford are long-shots, but they do have the size and potential the Packers look for in their young corners. Bush is a very good special teams player, but was plagued by penalties and looked over-matched when forced to play from the line of scrimmage last season. Although he did show some improvement at the end of 2009 when he made a couple plays, he likely would have to be the star of training camp to make the team. Peprah provides good depth in case of injury. Finally, Jones is an interesting prospect at safety. A college teammate of Shields, he is also a converted receiver possessing speed in the 4.3's. However, he is much bigger than Shields at 6'1" 220 pounds, and he has the size to be an intimidating hitter but probably still needs time to develop.
So, what was a weakness is now a position of strength where some very tough decisions are going to be made when cutting down the roster to 53. Collins and Burnett are locks along with Woodson and Williams, with Harris likely beginning the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List despite his protests. This will give the Packers an extra roster spot to get a look at a young guy while Harris gets his knee acclimated to the rigours of NFL football. That leaves Bigby, Martin, Levine, Peprah, Jones, and Bush competing for two or three spots at safety. And Blackmon, Lee, Underwood, Shields, Ford, Clark, and Bell competing for three or four spots.
In my estimation, when the 2010 NFL season starts, the depth chart in the secondary will look like this. Harris will be on the PUP List, giving the Packers until the sixth week to make a decision on him. Woodson and Williams will be the starters at cornerback while Bigby and Collins will start at safety. Lee, Blackmon, Underwood, and Shields will fill out the depth chart at corner. Burnett and Martin will fill out the depth chart at safety. Shields makes the team because of his ability to return and cover kicks. Lee, Blackmon, and Underwood to provide depth until Harris returns. Martin makes the team solely because he is the best special teams player on a team that ranked 31 out of 32 in that category in 2009. Burnett provides strong depth. Prior to the sixth week, one or two of these players will be cut or traded, and Harris will be activated from the PUP list. Perhaps the most likely to be traded would be Bigby if he loses his starting job to Burnett. Blackmon is the most likely to be released, as he is the most unreliable player, and will no longer be needed as a returner with Shields on the roster. Levine and Jones will be members of the 2010 practice squad, with Hood and Ford possibly being signed as well.
Either way, the Packers secondary looks like it has the potential to be very strong in 2010 as long as injuries don't decimate the position again. I'm excited to see how the battle for roster spots develops through out the off season, training camp, and into the pre-season. The Burnett v. Bigby battle will be the main event, while the under card will be the battle for the last spot on the depth chart at safety and corner back. It should be interesting.