GREEN BAY, Wis. -- One of our most frequent offseason activities has been discussing whether Charles Woodson will line up at cornerback or safety in 2012. I'm starting to think we've been asking the wrong question.
What if it's neither?
That option seems a distinct possibility based on what I saw and heard on the opening day of the Green Bay Packers' three-day minicamp. Woodson worked only in the Packers' nickel package Tuesday, strictly covering the slot receiver. Tramon Williams, Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields handled the outside work at cornerback with the first team, and even with presumptive safeties Charlie Peprah and Morgan Burnett sidelined by minor injuries, Woodson did not take a single snap as a traditional safety that I saw.
By all accounts, that arrangement did not signify the end of Woodson's time as a full-time player. Coach Mike McCarthy said he "absolutely" still views him as a starter, and Woodson said he was easing into football activities after training away from the team for a portion of the offseason.
What it does indicate, however, is a new level of positional line-blurring from Packers defensive wizard Dom Capers. If I had to guess, I would say a large portion of the season could go by without Woodson lining up as a traditional cornerback -- especially given the expected prevalence of three-receiver sets in the NFC North. That transition began years ago and might accelerate in 2012, but to say Woodson will be a safety in 2012 would oversimplify Capers' unconventional schemes.
McCarthy estimated that Woodson's role "may change somewhere between six and eight percent from what he's played in a past," a line I originally thought was sarcasm but now believe was an honest projection. McCarthy added: "We're not re-creating the wheel with him. I would define him as a playmaker in our defense and it's our responsibility to see him line up in positions where he can make plays."
Here's the way Woodson described his anticipated role: "I play a little bit here and a little bit there, where I'm needed each week," Woodson said.
Some of you might wonder why there has been so much teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing over this issue. To me, it's simple. Woodson is arguably the best cornerback of his generation and a seeming lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Any change in his skills, his role or performance is worthy of intense scrutiny.
At this point, at least, I like how the Packers are approaching the twilight of Woodson's career. They're looking for ways to maximize his unique skills, not just hide or protect him.
In 2012, Capers acknowledged, that could mean more use of what the Packers call "corner Okie," a version of their "Okie" base defense that in 2011 typically included Woodson, safety Morgan Burnett and cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields.
You could call that a three-cornerback set. Or, as Capers said, "All 'corner Okie' is is [Woodson] going in and playing safety. And when you look at the different teams we played, 'corner Okie' took the place of 'Okie.'"
A lot of this is inside football, but the way I interpreted what everyone said Tuesday is that Woodson will play in a role similar to safety when the Packers are in their base defense. In Capers' tenure with the Packers, the use of base has been rare -- about 25 percent. In the nickel, dime and other looks, you can count on Woodson lining up across from an inside/slot receiver.
In reality, that's the way the Packers played both the Lions and Bears last season. Capers said "you can count on one hand" the times Woodson played outside as a cornerback in those games. Given the way most NFL teams are focusing on either three-receiver sets or using tight ends in the slot, there is every reason to believe Woodson will spend most of his time as an inside defender in 2012.
Woodson gamely addressed a large group of reporters who surrounded his locker after practice. He noted "I've played a great deal of safety already since I've been here" and predicted "I don't think it will be different than in the past."
What Woodson knows, and what you hopefully now realize also, is that we've been asking the wrong question. You can call him a safety if you want. If it makes you feel better to consider him a nickel cornerback, go ahead. The title means a lot more to us than it does to Woodson or the Packers.
In truth, Charles Woodson will be the Packers' weekly hired gun, a player experienced enough to shift through the various machinations of Capers' scheme based on where he can make the biggest impact against a given opponent. I guess that means he is now a hybrid player, which by definition means he has no position. Now wrap your mind around that one ...