With six days until the start of training camp, we continue our position previews with the cornerbacks.
Starters: Sam Shields and Damarious Randall. Nickel: Quinten Rollins. Dime: Micah Hyde. Backups: Robertson Daniel, Makinton Dorleant, Demetri Goodson, LaDarius Gunter, Josh Hawkins and Randall Jette.
Coming: Dorleant, Hawkins and Jette (undrafted free agents). Going: Casey Hayward.
Depth: There’s little doubt about the top three. Shields, who ranks second in the NFL with 23 interceptions since the start of the 2010 season (including playoffs), is the established veteran. Randall proved his mettle during a strong rookie season. Rollins’ track record is small, with 322 snaps as a rookie, but he’s the heavy favorite to replace Hayward in the nickel role. Jack-of-all-trades Hyde probably will be the dime defensive back and top backup at safety.
The battleground will be at No. 4 cornerback, with Gunter the front-runner ahead of Goodson, Daniel and the rookies. At 6-foot-1 1/2, Gunter has the size teams covet. And yet, he went undrafted despite starting for three seasons at Miami. Why? Because he had a horrendous Scouting Combine, with a 4.69-second clocking in the 40-yard dash and a 33.5-inch vertical jump. Gunter made the final roster but barely played, with the number of games as a healthy inactive (eight) matching the number of snaps he played on defense. But then came the playoff game at Washington. With Shields out with a concussion and Rollins dropping out with an injured quad, Gunter wound up playing 31 snaps and broke up a fourth-quarter pass.
“I had 100 percent confidence that he was going to go in there and do what he was going to do,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “I’m not going to put him on speed guys, but you have to have elite speed to beat him because he understands how to play. He’s very powerful with his hands. There’s only very few guys — DeSean Jackson, (Mike) Wallace — that I wouldn’t want to match him up on. But everybody else, I really don’t care. The kid can play. He can legit play. Pierre Garcon’s a very good player. Pierre has good vertical speed. We respect that guy, and Gunt played him well. It’s not always about your 40. It’s about how you play the game of football, and he’s shown through the two years that I’ve had him that he plays at a high level.”
About 14 months ago, Goodson was running with the starters during offseason workouts. But then he got passed by Randall and Rollins and barely played on defense during the regular season, other than 49 snaps at Carolina when Shields and Rollins were hurt. That performance didn’t go well. A four-game suspension to start this season won’t help his chances. He did play well on special teams with nine tackles, with his work as a gunner helping Tim Masthay set the team’s net-punt record. Still, this could be a do-or-die camp for Goodson.
“I’m not worried about the roster battles and stuff like that,” Goodson said. “I just come in to work every day and work hard. I feel like everything else will just fall into place. I don’t really worry about making the roster. I never do that. I just feel like everybody here knows me, knows I’m a very good person.”
Robertson Daniel, a corner in the mold of Gunter, will vie for a roster spot and a place in the rotation. Daniel spent training camp with the Raiders and the entire regular season on Green Bay’s practice squad until he was promoted to the roster for the playoff game at Arizona.
IF THIS HAPPENS ...
The NFL is about big plays, and no team’s cornerbacks make more big plays than the Packers’ corners. Since Dom Capers took over as defensive coordinator and Whitt as cornerbacks coach in 2009, Green Bay has a league-high 83 interceptions from its cornerbacks. How big is that number? The Packers could probably go the entire season without an interception from a cornerback and still lead the league. New England is a distant second with 67, Chicago has 65 and Philadelphia has 60. The Packers have more interceptions from their corners than the Lions (39) and Vikings (35) combined.
Now, can this group take the next step? Even while relying on two rookies, last season was a good step in that direction. By reducing the number of blown coverages, the Packers yielded 46 passing plays of 20-plus yards, the fifth-best mark in the league. Of course, the season died at Arizona when Randall blew a coverage and the rest of the defense forgot how to tackle Larry Fitzgerald.
“I can easily say we had the fewest number of missed assignments last year than any year that we’ve been here,” Whitt said. “We were way down. But we made the mistake in the game.”
If the Packers can continue making big plays but eliminating big plays against them, they’ll have a shot at beating the likes of Carolina’s Cam Newton and Arizona’s Carson Palmer in January. Staying healthy would help. Shields missed 17 regular-season games in his first six seasons and never has played the full 16-game slate. Rollins, who missed most of the offseason practices after sustaining a dislocated finger that was so severe that the bone pushed through the skin, missed the start of training camp with an injured hamstring, was inactive for one game with a neck injury and couldn’t finish the playoff game vs. Washington. Randall missed part of one game with an injured knee and an entire game with an injured hamstring.
Randall and Rollins. General manager Ted Thompson made a big gamble last offseason by letting Tramon Williams and Davon House depart in free agency. Thompson’s decisions were understandable — House and Williams got big money from the Jaguars and Browns, respectively — but it put pressure on Thompson and his scouts to find replacements and on Whitt to get them ready. It appears those missions have been accomplished.
Randall, the team’s first-round pick, had three interceptions (plus another in the playoff loss at Arizona). He had a team-high 16 passes defensed, or a rate of one for every 47.0 snaps. Based on the way he played during the first two-thirds of the season, the Packers have a potential star on their hands. He had the memorable deflection to seal the victory over San Diego and helped limit Dallas’ Dez Bryant to one catch for 9 yards. It was a different story during the final five games, however. He got torched by Oakland’s Amari Cooper in Week 15 and blew coverage on the pivotal 75-yard catch-and-run by Fitzgerald in the playoff game. Unofficially, he gave up four touchdowns.
Rollins has a chance to be everything the Packers thought they were getting in Hayward after Hayward’s phenomenal rookie season but wrapped in a more physical package. Rollins broke up nine passes, or a rate of one for every 35.8 snaps. He intercepted two passes but probably should have had five or six, and didn’t allow a touchdown. Catching the ball wasn’t an issue during his one season at Miami (Ohio), so the hope is that part of his game will come around. What sets him apart is his physicality. He’s already the unit’s best tackler and blitzer. Tackling is critical considering the nickel defender lines up so close to the line of scrimmage.
A year into the system, the expectation is they’ll play faster.
“Just like everybody, there’s a growth and development stage,” Whitt said. “Go from running the playbook to actually playing defensive football, which I think we started to get to at the end of the year. But they have to have a true grasp of what we’re doing so they can show the quarterback what we want to show them and not just run plays and not just do what the defenses says because Joe says do it, to understand why they’re doing it. Once you understand the why, you can play much faster.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.