Finally, we've gotten to the defensive portion of this series. The Green Bay Packers may not have a bigger need on the defensive side of the ball than defensive back, so this is a perfect place to start.
Between the retirement of Sam Shields, the sophomore slump of Damarious Randall and the loss of Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson, Casey Hayward and Davon House, who has since re-signed after a two-year stint in Jacksonville, the Packers have not had much stability at the cornerback position. To understand why, you need to keep in mind of Green Bay's scheme.
Under Dom Capers, the Packers, like most LeBeau-zone blitz teams, have one of the most complicated back ends in football. Because of that, it's incorrect to assume that a defensive back can be a plug and play piece. With that in mind, that's likely why Green Bay doesn't invest much at the top of the draft in cornerbacks. Pittsburgh, another LeBeau-style defense, has struggled with cornerback depth for years, too. LeBeau now is the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, where fans are asking for cornerback talent in the draft. Think of the names we just listed. Shields and Williams weren't draft picks at all. Woodson was a free agent. Hayward was a slipping Day 2 selection. House was a Day 3 pick.
Look at the cornerbacks that Green Bay has invested in recently. Randall played baseball, junior college ball and safety at Arizona State. Quinten Rollins played basketball until his last year at Miami of Ohio. Shields was a receiver at Miami. Demetri Goodson also played basketball in college, at Gonzaga, before transferring to Baylor to play football. Herb Waters, who was moved up to the active roster late in 2016 as an undrafted free agent, was a former Miami receiver, too.
In this defense, rookies generally can't make immediate impacts, with the major exception being Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety, who played under Nick Saban, who is right up there with Mike Zimmer and Pete Carroll as far as generational defensive back coaches go. They take years to develop, but Green Bay doesn't put a premium on re-signing these talents, either. (Ex: all of those defensive backs walking.)
The one exception there was Shields, who since entering the league up until his concussion last year, was second in the NFL in interceptions over that time. Capers' defense is built off of sacks and turnovers, with the idea of “bend don't break” being thrown out the window. There's a reason why basketball players, receivers and baseball players, who you'd think have “ball skills,” end up being the guys Ted Thompson and co. go up to bat for. The idea of not valuing cornerbacks can be broken down to the general manager, too. The only cornerback with more interceptions than Shields since he entered the league up until last year? Richard Sherman, whose general manager once was in Green Bay under Thompson and is now trying to move his contract.
To truly understand why Green Bay is so strict at defensive back, you need to have these ideas embedded in your philosophy:
• quarterback rating throwing to a cornerback's side doesn't matter, only turnovers
• young players aren't going to be ready to play early, so you might as well swing for athletes
• the team values the position less than a majority of the NFL in terms of non-rookie contracts
In short, the cornerbacks coach in Green Bay, Joe Whitt, has one of the hardest jobs in the sport just by the nature of how the scheme and front office function, not including the current state of talent at the position.
Since 2010, after Capers' first season as the defensive coordinator in Green Bay, the Packers have drafted nine defensive backs. Here are the characters you're going to need to know:
• 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
• 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall
• 2012 second-round pick Casey Hayward
• 2015 second-round pick Quinten Rollins
• 2010 third-round pick Morgan Burnett
• 2011 fourth-round pick Davon House
• 2012 fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian
• 2013 fifth-round pick Micah Hyde
• 2014 sixth-round pick Demetri Goodson
Of those nine defensive backs, seven of them were at least an eighth-inch of 5'11”, ran at least a 4.57-second 40-yard dash and recorded at least a 6.87-second three-cone time. Essentially, they like longer defensive backs with hips that test well and filter out defensive backs with limiting 40 times. For example, here are the 2010-2016 defensive backs who were drafted in the first round who hit all of the numbers listed above:
• 2011 fifth overall pick Patrick Peterson
• 2010 fifth overall pick Eric Berry
• 2012 10th overall pick Stephon Gilmore
• 2015 16th overall pick Kevin Johnson
• 2013 22nd overall pick Desmond Trufant
• 2016 24th overall pick William Jackson III
• 2015 27th overall pick Byron Jones
• 2012 29th overall pick Harrison Smith
• 2015 30th overall pick Damarious Randall
• 2014 31st overall pick Bradley Roby
• 2010 32nd overall pick Patrick Robinson
Other than Robinson and Randall, there is no buyer's remorse from any of the other teams who drafted those defensive backs. This seems to be a fairly efficient model, for at least cornerbacks.
Here are the rarity numbers for these defensive backs:
• first round 2010-2016: 11 of 43 defensive backs (26 percent) were “Thompson defensive backs”
• second round 2010-2016: 4 of 31 defensive backs (11 percent) were “Thompson defensive backs”
• third round 2010-2016: 13 of 50 defensive backs (26 percent) were “Thompson defensive backs”
• fourth round 2010-2016: 11 of 53 defensive backs (21 percent) were “Thompson defensive backs”
In the first four rounds of the last seven drafts, the Packers have drafted five “Thompson defensive backs” in Randall, Hayward, Burnett, House and McMillian. The rest of the 31 NFL franchises drafted 1.06 of those defensive backs over the same period. Green Bay is targeting these defenders at five-times the rate of the rest of the league. That's significant.
The exceptions to this rule were:
• Clinton-Dix who as mentioned before was coming out of an advanced system in Alabama that allowed him to be a plug and play free safety. As we mentioned in the drafting of Eddie Lacy in the running back tendencies piece, team need does seem to play a part in the Packers' draft tendencies, as well as with tight end Richard Rodgers, and a desperate Green Bay defense in need of a developed safety couldn't have had a better talent to fall to them than Clinton-Dix in their situation.
• Rollins. I have no idea what to do with him. He was mocked in the first round during portions of the draft cycle, but his poor testing numbers knocked him for most online evaluators. Maybe Green Bay just graded his talent to the point that they were willing to overlook his numbers like Lacy and Randall Cobb. Green Bay often fills one hole with two plugs, and the Packers knew they were going to need a starting cornerback in 2017. They swung at Randall and Rollins a year early. That's the only explanation I can think of.
This is what all of this digging means for this draft season. Here is the NFL Draft Scout/CBS board of cornerbacks who qualify as Thompson cornerbacks (blue) or at least are on track to me (yellow):
In the last seven years, there have been 15 defensive backs who passed through the “Thompson defensive back” threshold in the first two rounds. That's just over two a class. At the cornerback position alone, there are six cornerbacks with at least “first-round/second-round” grades on NFL Draft Scout/CBS Sports, and that's without Marshon Lattimore running his three-cone time. That does to tell you how deep this cornerback class is.
Here's what you're going to want to know about the top guys:
• Lattimore is going to be gone by the time the Packers are selecting in the first round, but his teammate Gareon Conley is the second-best cornerback in this class. Alabama and Ohio State play the most press, which translates well to the NFL, so there's no reason to be shocked why they have two of the top five cornerbacks on this list. Conley reminds me a lot of Hayward and Bradley Roby.
• Marlon Humphrey of Alabama is being mocked anywhere from the top-10 to the second round at the moment. He doesn't flash much on film, but he's a 20-year-old with an athletic background, doesn't standout in a bad way (which is half the battle at cornerback) and did show off his speed as Alabama's premier punt gunner. He's a player you need to mold, but he checks every box.
• TreDavious White of LSU and Cameron Sutton of Tennessee are interesting because they both have the same career arch. They were both thought of highly coming out of their sophomore seasons, but had junior slumps, which led to them returning to school as seniors. They both bounced back, but Sutton's last year at Tennessee was cut short due to injury. In my opinion, no position is better suited for a bounce back than defensive back. Even at the NFL level, we see players go from being great, to having a snow-balling bad season, to being Pro Bowl again the next year.
I noted players with a 40-yard dash of over 4.5 seconds because those players tend to be slot or overhand defenders (third safety/strong safety) in Green Bay (Hayward, Burnett, McMillian, Hyde) than guys who you put on the perimeter (Randall, House, Goodson.)
Side note: Shields also hit these athletic measurements during his draft process.
Though I don't really think Green Bay is in the market for drafting a safety high in the draft, here are the players who check the box for the Packers at that position:
Previous articles in this series:
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