We continue our training camp positional series with the cornerbacks.
Starters: Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde (nickel). Shields had a career-low two interceptions and his 13 passes defensed were his fewest since his rookie season. He has 15 picks in five career seasons. Including playoffs, his 20 interceptions since the start of the 2010 season trail only Richard Sherman (25) and Tramon Williams (22). With Williams in Cleveland, more will be expected from Shields, whether it’s possibly moving from the right side to the left (since most quarterbacks throw to the offense’s right and the defense’s left) or even potentially shadowing the opponent’s No. 1 receiver at times. Hayward had six interceptions during a brilliant rookie season in 2012. However, 2013 was a lost cause due to an injured hamstring and a quality 2014 that included three interceptions and six passes defensed was marred by getting beaten by Seattle’s Doug Baldwin for 20 yards in the fourth quarter and 35 in overtime in the NFC title game. Hyde started six games at safety and six games as the nickel corner. He intercepted two passes and broke up 12 during a solid second season. He’s a jack-of-all-trades player who does everything well, despite so-so speed.
Top backups: Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins. Nothing will be given to these two rookies, though they had vaulted ahead of the players listed under “contenders” by the end of the offseason practices. You know their stories: Arizona State’s Randall, the first-round pick, is a former baseball player and Miami-Ohio’s Rollins, the second-round pick, is a former basketball player. Randall played mostly outside during the offseason practices while Rollins worked in the slot as well as outside. In 2014, Randall intercepted three passes, broke up nine others and led the conference with 6.54 solo tackles per game. In his only season of college football, Rollins was the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year with seven interceptions and nine other passes defensed.
Contenders: Tay Glover-Wright, Demetri Goodson, Ladarius Gunter, Kyle Sebetic. Of the bunch, Goodson is the only player to be drafted and Gunter is the lone rookie. Glover-Wright went undrafted out of Utah State, where he intercepted zero passes in two seasons. He spent camp with Atlanta and joined Green Bay’s practice squad on Oct. 6. During the offseason, he worked outside and in the slot. Goodson, the former standout point guard at Gonzaga, was a sixth-round pick last season after intercepting four passes in 19 games at Baylor. He didn’t play a snap on defense last season but showed some spunk with six tackles on special teams in six games. He’s purely an outside corner. At 6-foot-1 1/2, Gunter was the third-tallest corner in the entire 2015 draft class but went undrafted because his 4.69 in the 40, 1.68 in the 10, 4.41 in the 20-yard shuttle, 12.44 in the 60-yard shuttle and 33.5-inch vertical made him the worst tester among the 54 defensive backs at the Combine. He had six interceptions in 37 career games at Miami. Some teams viewed him as a safety but he worked solely on the outside during the offseason. Sebetic, a native of Pleasant Prairie, Wis., was signed about a month before the draft. He went undrafted out of Dayton in 2014 and spent camp with the Giants. He also spent a week on their practice squad. Sebetic primarily worked in the slot during the offseason.
Can Shields be the No. 1 corner?: With Williams and Shields, the Packers didn’t need a No. 1 corner. Without Williams, the 27-year-old Shields is the unquestioned veteran and leader of the group. And he’s acted that way, too, much to the delight of position coach Joe Whitt.
“Sam doesn’t say anything now. He is a quiet, quiet guy,” Whitt said during OTAs. “But he has talked more. He’s stopped drills. The first time he did it this offseason, I was like, ‘Is Wood here again?’ He stopped the drill like, ‘Joe, let me say something here real quick.’ He said it with such confidence and he showed the guys what he was talking about. He’s consistently been doing that and it’s been really good. The things that he’s been saying are so correct. I might have missed it – the balance in his stance or his first step – and he sees it and says, ‘Joe, his first step was here.’ It’s been really, really good, the details that he’s been helping the young guys with. I’ve been pleased with it.”
That’s great, but Shields needs to play with more consistency. According to ProFootballFocus.com, of the 108 corners who played 25 percent of the passing snaps, Shields ranked 11th by allowing a completion rate of 51.9 percent. However, he ranked 100th by allowing 15.9 yards per catch. Of the 125 corners who played 25 percent of the total snaps, he ranked 110th in PFF’s tackling efficiency. Because of that, he was replaced by safety Sean Richardson at times to get more physicality on the field. If he’s going to be the No. 1 corner, he’s going to have to get his tackling squared away.
It’s worth noting that Shields’ cap number goes from $9.06 million for this season to $12.125 million for 2016 and 2017. If Shields plays like he has the past couple seasons, is he worth that kind of money?
Is Hayward ready?: This might be the question of all questions entering this season. Hayward led all NFL rookies with six thefts in 2012. Four of those picks came when playing outside, which bucks conventional wisdom that he’s best in the slot. He played in only three games in 2013 due to hamstring issues he just couldn’t shake. Last season, Hayward rather quietly returned to form. According to PFF, Hayward ranked fourth with 0.70 yards allowed per snap in coverage and 16.2 snaps per completion. However, until he can play 70 snaps a game for 16 games, there will be nagging, unanswered questions.
“I really don’t understand all the questions about Casey playing outside,” Whitt said. “You know, I really don’t understand it. He plays outside. To answer your question, I have no worries about Casey. Not one concern. At all. ...
“If you go through and look at the completions he gives up, his completion percentage is the best out of our whole group since I’ve been here. He doesn’t give up completions, outside or inside.”
If he doesn’t give up completions, he’ll be in for a big payday as he enters his final season under contract.
What’s the backup plan?: In five seasons, Shields never has played more than 14 games and has missed 13 of a possible 80 regular-season games. While Hayward played in all 16 games in 2012 and 2014, he missed 13 games in 2013 and missed all of the offseason practices with an ankle injury.
With that history, chances are the Packers are going to need their depth at some point in the season. That depth is going to be young. There are no Casey Haywards or Davon Houses waiting in reserve. After Shields, Hayward and Hyde, not one Packers cornerback has played a regular-season snap on defense. That puts the pressure on Whitt.
“If you’re going to be young and bring in young guys, you’d better have a great offseason program and you’d better have a group of guys who are really good teachers, because it’s a crash course for these young guys,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “One of the good things is we get a chance to spend a lot of time with them. I don’t think there’s a lot od distractions. So, that’s our formula. And Joe does a great job with these guys.”
Are they ready ... or not?: At the start of the offseason practices, with Hayward sidelined, Goodson was running with the first unit. By the end, Gunter and Randall were getting their turns with the 1s. It was Rollins, however, who probably showed the most promise of the kiddie corps, but Whitt is taking a wait-and-see approach. Wait until those young corners face Aaron Rodgers and see how they do.
“Until he makes plays against 12, until he makes plays against 87 and 18 ...” Whitt said of Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. “I jump around, but then I go back and look at who’s throwing the ball and who is running the routes. Until I see him cover 87, 17 (Davante Adams), 18, with 12 throwing the ball, I’m really, really not going to get that excited because you have to cover the guys that are going to be playing on Sunday. Some of these guys that he’s covering now, they’re not playing on Sunday. When I go back and look, I tell them, ‘OK, that’s a nice play. Do it against Randall. Do it against Davante. Do it with 12 throwing the ball. And then, now you’re thinking about moving up. Because when we go play Chicago the first game, you have to do it against some very good receivers. So that’s what I’m looking for. That’s the real answer.”
Where is improvement needed?: Tackling is a team-wide issue but the corners, in particular, weren’t effective last season. That’s the bad news. Worse, the unit’s best tackler, Williams, is in Cleveland. Shields, as mentioned above, was terrible last season. Of the aforementioned 125 corners who played 25 percent of the snaps, Hyde ranked 88th (when at corner), Hayward 95th and Shields 110th in PFF’s tackling efficiency.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.