Investment in Sam Shields paying off for defense
This is Part 8 of a 10-part series grading Packers players and coaches. Today, we rate the defensive backs.
To be sure, the Green Bay Packers were taking a risk when they extended Sam Shields on the eve of free agency in 2014.
Two years later, however, the gamble seems to be paying off.
Shields played out of his mind in a contract year in 2013 to force the Packers’ hand in giving him a four-year, $39 million contract with a $12.5 million signing bonus. It was a steep price to pay for a former undrafted free agent who had been up-and-down during his first four NFL seasons.
In making Shields a $10-million-per-year cornerback, general manager Ted Thompson pretty much resigned himself to parting ways with Tramon Williams and Davon House when their contracts expired and betting on Shields to harness his ability and maximize his impeccable speed.
Shields, still only 28, has done that in the first two years of the agreement. Where he once relied on his speed to hang with receivers, he since has perfected his technique and appears to be on the precipice of becoming one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks.
In the process, Shields has all but guaranteed he’ll see all four years of his deal. The Packers left themselves an out if the promising cornerback’s play wasn’t up to par in backloading the contract with base salaries and bonuses totaling $8 million and $1 million, respectively, in the final two years.
The Packers could’ve released Shields after two seasons and he would have counted only $6.25 million against the 2016 cap instead of $12.125 million in each of the final two years. At the time, it looked pricey, but now it appears to be a bargain with the way cornerback contracts are escalating.
Darrelle Revis (five years, $70 million) and Byron Maxwell (six years, $63 million) broke the bank last offseason. Even House (four years, $25 million) and Williams (three years, $21 million) walked away with big contracts last spring. Now, Casey Hayward could be heading toward a large payday this offseason.
The Packers remain in good standing despite the mass exodus in recent years. Shields, Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (fifth-year option) all remain under control through the 2017 season. Green Bay also appears to have hit on 2015 draft picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
Shields will need to prove he can stay healthy — he’s yet to play in all 16 regular-season games in his six NFL seasons — but there doesn’t appear to be a ceiling on his potential.
While he isn’t as vocal as Williams, Shields welcomed the challenge of being the Packers’ undisputed top cornerback this season. Gifted with blazing speed, the 5-foot-11, 184-pound cornerback has worked tirelessly to harness his ability under the watchful eye of cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt. He stayed mainly on the left side, but matched Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Dallas’ Dez Bryant before banging his head on the Cowboys’ sideline and missing the next four games with a concussion. Durability remains an issue for Shields, who missed the better part of six games. Has yet to play a full season in his pro career. A shoulder sprain caused him to miss most of the Packers’ midseason matchups against Super Bowl-bound Denver and Carolina. The defense gave up nearly a 1,000 yards in the two losses. His absence also could be felt against Oakland and Arizona in Weeks 15-16. Returned in time for the divisional playoff game against the Cardinals, but showed rust in dropping three potentially game-changing interceptions. Occasionally gets caught peeking into the backfield, but his recovery speed is remarkable. Even if a receiver gets behind his coverage, Shields is able to catch back up to the play. A suspect tackler throughout his career, the 28-year-old finished with 39 tackles and eight misses on his 691 defensive snaps. Picked off three passes against only one pass interference penalty.
The always level-headed Burnett is the unquestioned leader of the secondary and the primary communicator in the defense. A fearless, smart veteran, he doesn’t make dumb or emotional mistakes that sometimes are commonplace for safeties. He finished with only one penalty (holding) on 682 defensive snaps. This is the second consecutive year Burnett has dealt with calf issues, with a recurring strain sidelining him for five of the first six games. The defense played fine without him but was at its best against the run with him dropping into the box. Burnett doesn’t shy away from the dirty aspects of the job. One of the top run-stopping safeties in the league, Burnett finished with 68 tackles (four for a loss), two forced fumbles and only seven missed tackles in the regular season, according to Pro Football Focus. More steady than spectacular, Burnett didn’t have an interception in any of his 11 starts (including playoffs) and went without one for the second time in three regular seasons. He possesses great instincts and feel for the game. With only three in the past four years combined, that just isn’t Burnett’s game. Clinton-Dix’s arrival has brought out the best in Burnett.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Losing Burnett used to have disastrous consequences for the Packers’ defense, but not anymore. The unit played well in the six games Clinton-Dix crashed the box instead of the wily veteran, and Clinton-Dix only got better as the season went on. The former first-round pick played all but three defensive snaps, leading the defense with 100 tackles (three for a loss) with a secondary-high three sacks. Plays with an attitude and possesses amazing closing speed. He showed better technique in his second NFL season. Clinton-Dix didn’t become the turnover magnet it appeared he might be after grabbing two interceptions against Seattle in January’s NFC championship game, though his four takeaways still led the secondary. He showed up in big games, picking off Arizona’s Carson Palmer in the divisional playoffs. Clinton-Dix got into a sideline spat with veterans Julius Peppers and B.J. Raji in Carolina that he later apologized for. He was penalized three times (unnecessary roughness and pass interference). Clinton-Dix played in all 36 games since the Packers drafted him in the first round in 2014.
A two-year starting safety at Arizona State, the 5-foot-11, 196-pound rookie jumped right into a defined role at cornerback because of the domino effect in the secondary after Burnett’s calf strain. His recovery speed isn’t as spectacular as Shields, but his physicality, 40-yard dash (4.46 seconds) and vertical jump (38 inches) translated well to playing on the boundary. That was critical for the secondary with Shields missing the better part of six games. Randall finished with 69 tackles, a team-high 16 passes defensed and four interceptions in 17 games (11 starts). His 752 defensive snaps in the regular season were second only to Hayward. He had mixed results when matching up against top-end receivers (see: Amari Cooper), but the ultra-confident rookie isn’t intimidated by anyone. Randall had a rookie moment at an unfortunate time in the playoffs, passing off Larry Fitzgerald instead of following through on his man-to-man assignment. After several missed tackles, the play bled for a crippling 75-yard completion. He dropped out of several games only to return a few plays later. Randall is a big reason the Packers finished sixth in passing defense.
Hayward played twice as many defensive snaps (908) as he did in 2014 (426) to lead all Green Bay cornerbacks. Received the first shot at playing opposite Shields on the boundary before eventually giving way to the rookie Randall in Carolina. He still maintained an every-down role working outside in the base defense before moving into the slot in the sub-packages. Hayward possesses a can-do attitude, though his size (5-foot-11, 192) and speed probably make him better suited for the slot. Tackled better in the second half of the season, finishing with a career-high 65 tackles (three for a loss). Failed to record an interception in 18 games (including playoffs). Hayward’s coverage-snaps-per-reception dropped to 9.6 after he led all slot cornerbacks with 14.1 snaps per reception in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus. Admitted that he wasn’t himself early on after missing the offseason program following surgery to help heal a stress fracture. His experience showed once the playoffs started. The 26-year-old cornerback, who has played in 36 consecutive games, assumed the leadership role the secondary that was vacated after Williams’ departure. An unrestricted free agent who likely will get paid this offseason. It just might not be the Packers cutting the check.
Despite questions about his ability to contribute as a rookie, the former Miami-Ohio point guard proved to be a quick study. After playing only one year of collegiate football, Rollins received a lot of work both inside and outside during his rookie season. The stage wasn’t too big for him. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound cornerback finished with 31 tackles and six passes defensed on 322 regular-season snaps. Flashed playmaking ability with his two interceptions on Oct. 11 against St. Louis, including a 45-yard return for a touchdown. He started four games at right cornerback in place of an injured Shields late in the season and held his own. His 58.4 opposing passer rating was among the best in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Tackled better than the defensive coaches expected in Year 1. His natural ball skills and physicality make him an ideal candidate to handle the nickel cornerback job next season if Hayward isn’t re-signed. There's a lot of upside to Rollins’ game considering he only returned to the sport two years ago.
Hyde made five starts at safety in place of Burnett without issue. He gave up some yards to tight ends in the early weeks of the season before putting together a solid December, when he stopped several third-down plays in front of the first-down marker. Hyde admits he returned too soon from a hip pointer against Minnesota on Nov. 22, which played into the 47-yard completion he gave up to Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. He re-injured the hip against Arizona in the playoffs, but doesn’t expect it to affect his offseason. A confident, willing tackler who’s always around the football, his back-ended interception off Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was made for highlight reels. Hyde struggled in coverage against Washington’s Jordan Reed prior to a halftime adjustment by defensive coordinator Dom Capers. He needs to get north-south more on punt returns (5.8 yards per return), though he can be trusted to not muff the football.
Banjo bounced back from a frustrating 2014 season to make the 53-man roster and become a core special-teams player. An overachieving, undersized safety, Banjo packs a punch into his 5-foot-10, 207-pound frame and finished with a team-high 21 coverage tackles, according to the coaches’ statistics. He led the special-teams unit with 335 regular-season snaps and was voted playoff captain by his peers. He hasn’t lost the aggression and passion that helped him make the roster the first time as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Eighty-five of Banjo's 101 defensive snaps came between Weeks 3 and 6, when Burnett was nursing an aggravated calf strain.
The Packers have stuck with the former Gonzaga point guard through a lot of injuries and inconsistency. He played 49 of his 72 defensive snaps in the regular season against Carolina in a spot start, replacing Shields, and struggled against Panthers rookie receiver Devin Funchess. A press-man cornerback who plays strictly on the boundary, Goodson fell behind Rollins and Gunter on the depth chart by the end of the season. He finished fourth on special teams with nine coverage tackles. The Packers like his athleticism, but he is over-aged; Goodson turns 27 in June.
Under-developed in college, Gunter’s chances at getting drafted weren’t helped by a 4.69-second time in the 40-yard dash, and the slowest short shuttle (4.45 seconds) and 60-yard shuttle (12.44 seconds) at the NFL combine. He made the roster as an undrafted free agent after a phenomenal training camp and preseason. He has great size (6-foot-2, 201) and plays physical pressing off the line of scrimmage. His speed limitations often kept him off special-team units and led to being inactive in nine games. Gunter played well in place of an injured Rollins against Washington, breaking up a pass intended for Pierre Garcon.
Daniel is a big, lengthy defensive back whom the Packers signed to the practice squad immediately after he didn’t make Oakland’s final roster. He stayed there for the first 17 games of the season before the Packers promoted him for the divisional-playoff game in Arizona. He was inactive against the Cardinals, but signed a contract through the 2016 season. His 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame makes him an intriguing special-teams prospect, as well. He’ll get a chance to compete for a spot this summer.
The Packers, enamored with Richardson’s potential, matched a pricey offer sheet from Oakland and paid the 6-foot-2, 216-pound safety $2.55 million in 2015. Green Bay planned to use him in the slot against tight ends like Chicago’s Martellus Bennett before Richardson sustained another herniated disc in his surgically repaired spine a month into the season. The injury likely will spell the end of his NFL career.
email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.