Is this Will Blackmon's breakthrough year?

While the Green Bay Packers certainly have some positions up for grabs this offseason – the entire offensive line, two defensive line spots, two outside linebacker spots, and fullback are in play, as well as who starts at safety alongside Nick Collins – there is one position that is more intriguing to me than any of these right now – cornerback.

Charles Woodson and Al Harris will return as starters, but Ted Thompson has developed a considerable amount of depth behind Woodson and Harris. Granted, these players have a lot to prove, but consider the talent level behind Woodson and Harris for a moment.

  • Tramon Williams – 57 tackles and 5 interceptions in 2008
  • Will Blackmon – 4th round (06), primary return man
  • Pat Lee – 2nd round (08)
  • Brandon Underwood – 6th round (09)
  • Jarrett Bush – Packers matched Tennessee’s restricted free agent offer in the offseason

The Packers will keep a total of five or six cornerbacks. Assuming that none of the three current or former free agent signees (Joe Porter, Joshua Abrams, Trevor Ford) on the roster make the final cut, that means that potentially two of the above will be looking for work.

Barring the unforeseen (like, say, getting their legs severed in a terrible train accident), you can expect Woodson, Harris and Williams are locks to make the final roster.

Blackmon, after two injury-plagued seasons, emerged as the Packers No. 1 return man last season and gave the team a return threat it hasn’t had since Allen Rossum was in his prime. Blackmon averaged 21 yards per kick return and 11.1 yards per punt return, with two returns for touchdowns. He also filled the dime role in the defensive backfield, contributing 35 tackles and 2 forced fumbles.

We’d like to make Blackmon a lock because of his game-changing return ability, athleticism and potential, but we all know that’s no certainty under Ted Thompson. Big Ted could easily decide that Jordy Nelson is his return man, and that Blackmon is expendable, so we’ll label Blackmon a good bet for now.

That leaves Lee, Underwood and Bush to battle for what is likely one spot.

The smart money says that Lee, a second round pick last year gets that spot. Conventional logic says you simply don’t give up on a second round pick after one year. Lee, however, needs to show something in training camp to assure conventional logic prevails.

As a rookie, Lee was expected to compete for the nickel slot, but was unproductive – he was active for only five games, and was eventually placed on injured reserve in early December because of what was termed a lingering knee injury.

We would like to think Ted Thompson knows second-round talent when he sees it. If Lee proves Thompson right, he gets the last roster spot.

However, we’ve said nothing of Bush or Underwood.

Although I think absolutely nothing of him, the Packers thought enough of Bush to match the restricted free agent offer sheet he received from Tennessee in the offseason. The coaching staff believes in Bush’s potential and athleticism, despite the fact he clearly suffers from Torrance Marshall Syndrome.

Bush will see some time at safety, which, as Railbird Central pointed out, could serve him well in the battle at defensive back, where a cornerback/safety hybrid might prove to be a valuable insurance policy.

But what about Underwood? Ted Thompson isn’t the kind of guy to waste a draft pick, even in the sixth round.

Like Bush, Underwood may also get a shot at safety – he was an All-Big East first teamer at free safety during his senior season at Cincinnati. Underwood posted 60 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles, while splitting time at safety and filling in at corner after starter Mike Mickens went down with a knee injury. The book on Underwood is that he’s athletic (he was recruited by Ohio State) and reacts well to the ball, but is potentially too slow to be an NFL cornerback and not physical enough to be an NFL safety (6’1″, 198).

Underwood seems to have practice squad written all over him, but until we see him in pads we really have no idea.

What we could be looking at here, once the season starts, is an elite group of cornerbacks. We all know what Harris and Woodson have demonstrated in the past. We’re familiar with the potential Williams demonstrated in filling for Harris last season. The next two guys are going to have to fight tooth and nail during training camp for their jobs, and a little healthy competition makes everyone better.

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