Packers Will Rely On Young Cornerbacks

In 2010, an undrafted free agent cornerback from Miami (who converted from wide receiver) burst onto the scene for the Green Bay Packers, made the roster and ended up being a relevant piece that would help lead the team to a Super Bowl championship.  Six years later, Sam Shields looks around the room and sees that he's the elder statesman of the Packers cornerback group.  By quite a bit.  In looking down the roster and if you don't include Micah Hyde, who really plays a position all his own, the next most experienced guy is Demetri Goodson, who is entering just his third season.  Add to that fact that Goodson will miss the first four games of the season due to a suspension and he may not even be with the Packers this season.  That would leave Shields and guys who were rookies last year or who will try to earn a spot on the team as an undrafted free agent this summer.

The Packers and their fans know that while those facts alone might make most others nervous, they actually create a lot of anticipation and excitement.  Last season, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins both proved worthy of more playing time and showed a knack for being around the football.  Randall eventually became a starter towards the end of the season and the Packers felt so good about his progress and potential that they let Casey Hayward go in free agency.  Add in the fact that the Packers also lost Tramon Williams and Davon House in last year's free agency period and it speaks volumes to how confident the Packers are that they have adequately replaced some of those veteran corners.

Randall appeared in 15 games and racked up three interceptions during the regular season along with one in the postseason.  He had a huge pass break up to seal a victory against the San Diego Chargers and improved in his deep coverage as the year wore on.  Still, the Packers want to see even more from Randall this season.  More in the way of his ability to be in the right spot and just play football.  It was Randall who left Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald all alone across the middle, allowing a 75-yard catch and run that set the Cardinals up for the win in overtime in the divisional playoff game.  Those types of things are going to happen with younger players on the field, but the Packers can't really afford mistakes like it when they're constantly fielding players with very few years under their belt.  As far as Randall is concerned, the arrow seems to be pointing up.  That said, we saw receiver Davante Adams struggle in a second year in which he was supposed to ascend so we have to learn from that and at least wait until a few games into this season.

Rollins played more sparingly last season with Hayward and Hyde getting some of the snaps that he should see this season.  Rollins' best game of the season was easily the week five win over the St. Louis Rams.  Rollins had two interceptions, his only of the season, one of which he took to the house for a score.  Rollins added in a sack as well, showing some versatility and ability to get physical.  Rollins logged a pass break up against Washington in the wild card playoff game and in the process, gained some valuable experience playing January football in the NFL.  Rollins, who mostly played basketball in college, has proven his worth as a second round pick and also shows a lot of promise.  

The Packers defense improved throughout last season and was the team's backbone through the offensive struggles.  One of the areas of strength was the pass rush.  They had 41 sacks, good for seventh-best in the NFL and second in the NFC to the Carolina Panthers, who appeared in Super Bowl 50.  Pass rush has long been a big indicator of a defense's success.  In looking at most of the recent Super Bowl winners, they were able to get superior pressure on the quarterback.  With a few new faces on the defense this season, it's no certainty that the Packers will be able to duplicate the pass rush success of last year.  Julius Peppers is a year older and while Clay Matthews should spend more time at outside linebacker, it comes down to how well the others perform.  Guys like Nick Perry, Datone Jones in his new role as elephant end, Jayrone Elliot, and rookie Kyler Fackrell.  If the pass rush struggles or takes a step back, more will fall on the coverage.  That's where the improvement of the corners is key in needing to cover longer and disrupt routes.

I am not leaving the safeties out intentionally, as they're also a major cog to the Packers defense.  The hope is that Morgan Burnett can maintain his level of play, entering his seventh season and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix can continue his ascent in year three.  Those two, along with Hyde, appear poised to uphold their end of the bargain.  Year two is always big, in terms of a player's ability to take hold of his role and become a true pro.  Randall, Rollins and LaDarius Gunter are on the radar.  Gunter needs some improvement in his coverage and it showed during the little time he was on the field last season.  The Packers like Gunter and he has performed well during the spring, but until the pads come on, that's nothing more than a nice side note.  The good news is that cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has become one of the better secondary coaches in the league.  He has consistently put out solid and able corners during his time on head coach Mike McCarthy's staff and can likely get more out of a guy like Gunter than many others around the league.  This will likely become a real need.  If we also consider that Shields typically misses a few games this season, the Packers are looking at a starting outside tandem of Randall and Rollins.

Asking a corner to cover longer than four seconds is asking a lot.  Asking a young corner to hold coverage that long is asking for trouble over the long term.  It will be interesting to see if Randall and Rollins get more physical at the line to disrupt routes and buy some time for the pass rush.  This is something that catapulted the careers of former Packers corners such as Al Harris and Tramon Williams.  In looking at interception stats, the league leaders were Kansas City's Marcus Peters and Cincinnati's Reggie Nelson (a safety) with eight.  If Randall and Rollins can each add one or two more interceptions to their total, it puts them among some of the top defensive backs.  That would go a long way to keeping the Packers defense formidable and more dominant.  

I've focused on the guys we know so far in Randall, Rollins and Gunter.  Add Shields and let's call Hyde a cornerback (as they did last season) and that's still only five guys at the position.  The Packers have typically carried seven.  This may actually bode well for Goodson staying.  His special teams experience alone may be his ticket.  Also, the Packers can keep another player, either a corner or at another position, while Goodson serves his suspension and determine what they want to do when those four games are up.  Regardless, the reality is that one of the undrafted cornerbacks is going to make this roster so if you're starting your annual pool of "who willl be the Packers' undrafted rookie star this year?" you may want to focus on the cornerbacks.  Robertson Daniel (technically not a rookie), Josh Hawkins, Makinton Dorleant, and Randall Jette will all compete for a spot.  While you're taking a break from the "Jeff Janis superstar play of the day" watch during training camp, keep an eye on the corners.

It's a lot to hope for and ask of young players in a very competitive passing division.  With the likes of Alshon Jeffrey, Kevin White, Stefon Diggs and Golden Tate, to name a few, there won't be much rest for the guys shadowing them trying to keep the pigskin out of their hands.  When the season is over, it's very likely that the success these young corners have will be a big part of the equation for the Packers.

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Jason is a freelance writer on staff since 2012 and also co-hosts Cheesehead TV Live, Pulse of the Pack and Pack A Day podcasts.  You can follow him on Twitter here

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Comments (12)

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NickPerry's picture

July 01, 2016 at 06:17 am

I still would have liked to see Hayward signed, especially when you consider the contract he signed with San Diego which was pretty affordable. Having Hayward would have given the Packers unbelievable depth at CB. Randell did get better as the season wore on, he seemed to learn pretty quick from mistakes made and had one hell of a short memory which is important at that position. I'm more excited about Rollins myself, Rollins had the best QB rating (58.4) of any rookie CB who played 200 plus snaps in 2015. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Rollins leads the team with interceptions.

Gunter and hopefully one other step up this summer. I like Gunter, I like him a lot. Last year in the preseason he was excellent, something Goodsen hasn't done at all. Throw in Hyde and our Safeties and this is a Top 5 unit.

Capers is finally got a ILB who can cover (Martinez) and Fackrell is still my favorite pick of the 2016 draft. I really believe this Defense can put up close to 50 sacks and create TO's like the Defenses with Wood, Collins, and Williams.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

July 01, 2016 at 08:12 am

Nick, I would have said that Rollins improved steadily, and that Randall tailed off a bit as the season progressed. But it probably is unimportant: I like both Randall and Rollins, especially the latter. Also agree that after Shields, Rollins and Randall, things get a bit thin. I have hopes for Gunter, but agree with the author that someone new is nearly certain to make the 53. I was very disappointed in Hyde - I'll have no trouble letting Hyde test FA if he doesn't rebound this season (and I really liked Hyde for quite a while: he's hard-nosed player).

It seemed to me that Hayward was a cap casualty: with cap hits of $5.1M for each of the 3 year contract, and $5.2M of the $6.8M guarantee coming off the books in year 1, he was very affordable. I didn't feel like that was too much for a really good slot-only CB (though he could play outside in a pinch). I think the truth is that GB currently has $8.5M (or $9M - depends on the source) in cap space, Hayward's $5M charge would have left too little to roll over for the team's FA OL and others next season. But maybe GB knows something about Hayward we don't.

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dobber's picture

July 01, 2016 at 08:22 am

I'm not sure that Randall wasn't hitting the wall a little bit as the season progressed. Teams were also getting more tape on him and figuring him out a little bit. It's all about adjustments. Hyde is really a guy without a position. Probably better suited to play SS than anywhere else, but the safeties are pretty interchangeable in the Packer defense. He's smart and reliable, but I agree that they can do better.

I agree that Hayward wasn't worth the investment it would take to keep him. How much do you want to pay your third, or potentially fourth, CB? It helps that Rollins and Randall are on rookie contracts--which is really what the NFL is all about these days: finding good players who can contribute on their rookie deals. But the fact that San Diego ponied up for him will help the Packers in netting compensatory picks next spring. I think Hayward is a prime example of what player management in the NFL is going to be about: developing guys, assessing how they fit, and letting those who don't really make fiscal sense relative to your future plans (especially when you draft playable, younger guys) walk.

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NickPerry's picture

July 02, 2016 at 07:10 am

Agree on Hyde and like you really hope he rebounds this year. He did have some "decent" games last year but wasn't as good as in the past IMO.

Good points about Hayward and I've thought about Thompson taking the cap space into next season when all the O-Linemen are FA and the space could be used on one of them or go a long ways in bringing say Lang back.

Over The Cap has them at $24,708,254 in Cap Space for 2017 but that's with several players who probably won't be on the team next year so it's hard to predict at this time. Tretter for example isn't listed and he's one I'm hoping is coming back.

I also wonder about 2 things concerning Randell. Dobber already mentioned "The Wall" but also Sam Shields was also injured for the last 4 games or so. I think having to take on the #1 WR each week plus playing several more games than he's ever played had a little something to do with his fall off at the end of the year.

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dobber's picture

July 01, 2016 at 08:11 am

"I still would have liked to see Hayward signed....Having Hayward would have given the Packers unbelievable depth at CB."

I don't necessarily think they needed to resign Hayward, but I was one who was in favor of a mid-round CB in the draft. Knowing that Shields will miss time every season (unlike Cow's punching at ARod's health, Shields is predictable in terms of missing games) due to some kind of injury, a second injury to the CB could be nearly catastrophic for this--or frankly any--defense. It puts a lot of pressure on that 4th and 5th CB to be playable coming out of camp, and Goodson, frankly, is a disaster in coverage. If they can find an ST replacement for him in camp and a promising developmental CB, they should let him go.

The sack numbers are pointed out here, but this is a defense in recent years where the sack totals have benefited from having CB who could hold up in coverage. I think this is a year where there's enough depth in terms of outside pass rushers that the edge players can take some of that heat off the CB. I like our top 3 CB a lot, and Gunter has flashed (I think he's destined to be Burnett's replacement at safety), but the fact that Gunter and beyond are all unknowns makes me nervous.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

July 01, 2016 at 08:38 am

I see only 7 DBs who should definitely make the team: Shields, Rollins, Randall, Hyde, Dix, Burnett and Banjo. I don't love the last guy in Nickel, and not even sure who the final guy is for dime packages. I trust in Whitt quite a bit (wow, that rhymes!).

OTOH, GB was 6th in total team pressures with 112. Daniels and CM3 led the way with 21 each (tied for 29th in the NFL - but that counts all DTs, DEs and LB, so 29th is excellent), Peppers with 16 (53rd in the NFL), Neal with 9 and Perry with 8, Pennel with 7 (which is good for a NT, though he played quite a bit of 3 tech), Guion and Datone each with 6. Of course, it could be excellent coverage that allowed all those pressures. GB was 8th in sacks as well with 43. [Personally, I think Peppers owed the bulk of his sacks to pressure created by others.]

http://www.sportingcharts.com/nfl/stats/total-team-defensive-hurries/2015/

http://www.sportingcharts.com/nfl/stats/defensive-hurries/2015/

http://www.sportingcharts.com/nfl/stats/team-sacks-and-sack-yards/2015/

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Bearmeat's picture

July 01, 2016 at 06:48 am

I'm not worried about the DBs. With the exception of 2012-2014, GB has had a good secondary for LOOOOONG time. The young guys showed promise, and not just 1 of them either. Someone will make the jump - either Randall, Rollins, Gunter or some combination thereof. What's even more exciting is that these guys aren't going to be making nearly as many mistakes in their 2nd year. Barring injury, the secondary is going to be DAMN good.

The only question on the D (indeed on the team as a whole) IMHO, is the ability to stop the run and cover up the seam. I do think the pass rush will be equal to last year or better.

This team is going to be very good. Hopefully good enough to win it all.

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RCPackerFan's picture

July 01, 2016 at 07:08 am

I really like our young CB's. I think the best position battles in camp will be WR's vs CB's. Good thing about camp is you can watch the CB's going up against the WR's a lot.

The thing I like about all 3 - 2nd year CB's is they know how to get their hands on the ball. That is a skill that not all CB's have.

I do believe that we will see an UDFA CB make the 53. Right now Robertson Daniel will have the edge after being with Green Bay last year and also with him earning a roster spot late in the season. But the guy I'm going to watch a lot is Dorleant. I think he has a real chance to make it.

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dobber's picture

July 01, 2016 at 08:16 am

I'm intrigued by Daniel and his measurables...good CB size, good straight line speed, good strength, competitive quickness. Certainly, if he hadn't had some disciplinary issues at BYU (do they have those at BYU?) I think he would have been more highly regarded. He's a dark-horse CB who could end up at safety...the Packers seem to have a lot of those guys.

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Since'61's picture

July 01, 2016 at 09:55 am

In this pass happy era of the NFL, plus the rules that support it, it's difficult to assess DB play. They may do a great job in coverage and still get called for some phantom penalty. It's on the job training for young CBs and Randall and Rollins will need to learn fast to be effective this season. I have no problem with letting Tramon Williams and Hayward go to FA but House would have been a real asset for this team right now. His price was too high at the time and as a result we're a little thin at CB unless Randall and/or Rollins make a big leap this season. We'll know within 4-5 games if TTs plan for this position is working or not. Thanks, Since '61

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dobber's picture

July 01, 2016 at 10:51 am

So hard to figure what this secondary might look like right now if they kept House. If they ponied up the $$ for him, I feel pretty confident they wouldn't have drafted CB back-to-back last spring. The would've needed to draft someone to replace TWill, but who knows who and when that would've been. I think I like our top 3 now better than a top 3 of Shields, House, and CB X, but that's just me.

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Since'61's picture

July 01, 2016 at 03:54 pm

Dobber - Agree, I like our top 3/CBs better as well. However if we had House now I think that our top 4 would have been pretty formidable. However, we can't cry over spilled milk so we go forward with Randall and Rollins and we'll see how TTs picks work out. Thanks, Since '61

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