Will Williams ever be the same?

The same question was posed here in this very space a year ago, and the jury remains out. Although Williams was better than he was in 2011, when truth be told he probably should have missed more than just one game, it’s unclear whether he’ll ever reach his 2010 level, when he was a shutdown cornerback and among the league’s top cover men. One thing cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has promised: Williams won’t spend every game matched up on the opponent’s top target, if Shields, Hayward and House show the growth he expects. If that’s the case, Williams will benefit.

On the rise

Hayward.

Hayward received serious consideration in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year balloting, finishing third behind Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Seattle’s Bobby Wagner. Now, the coaches must decide whether he should remain on the slot receiver in the team’s nickel and dime defenses or be given the opportunity to play every down as one of the team’s top two cover men. That would mean bumping Williams or Shields, who came on strong late last season after missing six games with a sprained ankle. Whitt believes Hayward has the talent of a No. 1 cornerback and made it clear after the season ended that it will be an open competition for the starting jobs. Hayward could make things very interesting.

Player to watch

House.

It’s easy to forget that in the early days of training camp last year, Shields played poorly and then suffered an elbow injury, and Hayward hadn’t done much of anything of note. House, meanwhile, put together back-to-back eye-catching days of practice once the pads came on and earned the starting corner job opposite Williams for the preseason opener at San Diego. Alas, a shoulder injury suffered on special teams in the second half derailed any chance he had of winning a starting job, and while he was able to come back and play in nine games (with five starts), his window for being the team’s breakout player in the secondary had closed for the year. Now, fresh off offseason surgery to repair the shoulder, he could thrust himself back into the starting lineup discussion with a strong – and healthy – camp.

Key competition

Safety opposite Burnett.

The Packers could have gone one of three ways at the safety position alongside Burnett: They could have signed one of a host of free-agent veterans – Michael Huff, for example, was reportedly set to visit before signing with Baltimore; they could have picked one in a draft where safety was viewed as the deepest position across the board; or they could have stood pat with what they had. They went with Door No. 3. Thus, just as they did last year behind veteran Charles Woodson, McMillian and Jennings will battle for a job. This time, though, it’s not for the quasi-starting job in the nickel defense, when Woodson would move to the slot and be replaced at safety. Rather, this is for the full-time gig next to Burnett. Both players saw 600 snaps of defensive action last year but neither distinguished himself. Give McMillian a slight edge as one of Ted Thompson’s draft picks, but this battle figures to go all the way through the summer.

Noteworthy

In a philosophical shift, Whitt has decided to give his cover guys more freedom to play how they want to play. While there will still be certain defensive calls that require specific coverage techniques, Whitt wants his guys to be put in position to make the most plays. For Williams, Whitt said, that’s playing off. For Shields, Whitt said, it’s press coverage. “We asked those guys for as much as possible to get up and press,” Whitt explained. “(Williams) can press. (But) he gets the ball better when he’s off. He makes more impactful plays from playing off. Sam makes more impactful plays being pressed. If you go back to 2010, most of (Williams’) impact plays came from being off. This year, my whole mantra – and I told Dom (Capers) this -- we might give up a little more completions, but I’m going to allow them to do what they do. So you might see Tramon and Casey play off (more).”

Quoteworthy

“It’s an opportunity to compete. When you look at how much M.D. and McMillian played last year, those are two young players that played a lot of snaps. I look for them to make that jump, I look for M.D. to make that second-year player jump. And I look for Jerron McMillian to make that second-year jump. It’s going to be very competitive. Morgan has clearly established himself as the leader back there. His communication has been outstanding.” – head coach Mike McCarthy, on the team’s options at safety.

Next: Special teams.