In 2014, the Green Bay Packers reached the NFC Championship Game with Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward and Davon House as their quartet of cornerbacks.
By the fourth quarter of the season-opening game at Jacksonville, all four of those players were out of the equation.
After the 2014 season, Williams signed with Cleveland and House signed with Jacksonville. After the 2015 season, Hayward signed with San Diego. That left only Shields, and he suffered a concussion against the Jaguars. The injury ended his season and might end his career.
The injury might as well have ended the Packers’ championship hopes. While they got within one game of the Super Bowl, Green Bay’s pass defense was atrocious for most of the season. It finished 26th in opponent passer rating, 31st in passing yards per game and per play, and 32nd in 100-yard receiving games.
Quite simply, the team’s top draft picks from 2015, cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, weren’t good enough. According to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus and its best estimates of coverage responsibilities before the NFC Championship Game:
— Randall allowed a completion rate of 64.3 percent with 10 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 115.1. His 800 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns were the worst figures on the team.
— Rollins allowed a completion rate of 71.6 percent with seven touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 135.4. Among the Packers’ top four corners (Randall, Rollins, LaDarius Gunter and Micah Hyde), Rollins was last on the team in completion percentage, yards per catch (15.1), yards after the catch (274) and passer rating.
What general manager Ted Thompson must figure out is whether Randall (a former college safety) and Rollins (a former college basketball player) had their seasons derailed by injuries, or whether they’re simply not good enough.
“We’re just getting started in the evaluation process,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last week. “We’re not making any of those kind of decisions today. Having a chance to meet with both those guys, I’m excited about their future. I think they’re both going to be really good players for us. Both Q and Damarious will be working out together out there in California, so these guys already have their workout plan set. I think both those guys will definitely grow for their experience this year, because they both had a lot of adversity that they had to deal with.”
Randall missed six games with a groin injury that required surgery and was slowed by a variety of other injuries, including a shoulder that impacted his tackling and ability to play press-man coverage. Rollins missed three games with a groin injury. Because of their injuries and underwhelming play, another second-year player, undrafted LaDarius Gunter, became the team’s No. 1 cornerback.
Gunter competed harder and played more physically than Randall and Rollins. He was outstanding at times — ask Odell Beckham Jr.’s fist after the Giants’ star receiver punched a hole through the visiting locker room after Gunter earned a decisive win in their Wild Card matchup. According to PFF, Gunter allowed a respectable 56.8 percent completion rate but six touchdowns, no interceptions and a 104.2 passer rating.
But Gunter’s lack of sheer athleticism became more and more problematic. Not surprisingly, he didn’t stand a chance against Dallas’ Dez Bryant and Atlanta’s Julio Jones in the playoffs.
Give Gunter credit for not backing down from the repeated challenges. But the Packers used premium picks on Randall and Rollins for a reason. They must play to that standard in 2017.
“We have a long history here in the last 11 years of first-year players making a big jump in their second year,” McCarthy said. “Those guys, both Randall and Q Rollins, had multiple injuries to deal with too. It was a tough go at the cornerback position. I thought (position coach) Joe Whitt did a tremendous job getting those guys ready. We just really never had any consistency as far as who we were playing with in multiple weeks. Obviously, Gunter gave us the most consistent play in his time, and he deserves a lot of credit for that.”
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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.