Packers' secondary nears elite status
Eighth in a nine-part series of Packers position previews.
GREEN BAY - Secondaries in Denver and Seattle have been playing on a higher level for several seasons. In the NFC North, Minnesota’s unit need not take a backseat to anyone.
Slowly but surely, however, the Green Bay Packers have refitted their defensive backfield through savvy player acquisition and development to the point where there have realistic aspirations of becoming a top-five unit this season.
“Sam (Shields) and Morgan (Burnett) have won a Super Bowl,” backup safety Micah Hyde said Tuesday. “A guy like Ha Ha (Clinton-Dix) is going on three years with so much playing time.
“Me and (Chris) Banjo both have some experience, and obviously the two rookies from last year balled out and will only get better.
“Denver, they’re really good. Seattle’s good, too. But we definitely know what our secondary is capable of doing.”
In 2009, coach Mike McCarthy promoted Joe Whitt from defensive quality control to cornerbacks coach. At the same time, he hired Darren Perry to coach safeties and become a co-equal with Whitt.
No team can compare to the Packers when it comes to years of continuous service by their two secondary coaches.
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"'DP' (Perry) and I work very, very closely together,” Whitt said. “I trust him. He’s a good person. We’re on the same page in everything. I think it shows in how close our players are.”
Perry-Whitt’s first secondary included cornerbacks Charles Woodson, Al Harris and Tramon Williams, and safety Nick Collins. Williams, in March 2015, was the last to depart.
General manager Ted Thompson reloaded the best way possible, hitting on every defensive back drafted in the first four rounds since 2009 with the exception of safety Jerron McMillian. Couple that with the free-agent signing of Shields six years ago and top-five units do materialize.
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“I will answer that question by saying we were the only secondary that finished in the top 10 in every pass category last year,” Whitt said. “We have everybody except one guy back.”
Missing is Casey Hayward, the playing-time leader (88.1 percent) at cornerback last season whom Thompson wisely let walk to San Diego (three years, $15.3 million, $6.8 million guaranteed) in free agency. There was a place for Hayward’s steady professionalism in 2015 next to the three rookie cornerbacks, but he would have just been in the way this year.
The Packers have a No. 1 corner in Shields, 28. As a safety tandem, Burnett, 27, and Clinton-Dix, 23, ranks with the NFL’s finest.
Now it’s incumbent upon Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins to take typical second-season jumps and provide reliable play at left corner and nickel back, respectively.
“Randall and Quinten can be very, very good players,” Whitt said. “They just have to step up and do it.”
Randall, the 30th pick in the 2015 first round, worked his way ahead of Hayward after about a month and took over on the left side. Concern about him making the transition from safety proved unfounded.
He can run (4.41). He’s brimming with confidence. He can be feisty.
On the other hand, he had costly mental breakdowns, didn’t tackle well and probably fared worse the longer the season went.
“Had his ups and downs but competed well and got his hands on some balls,” an executive in personnel for an NFC team said. “That’s important.”
Rollins, a late second-round choice despite playing just one season of collegiate football, didn’t gain full health until midseason, when he moved past Hyde in the nickel defense. When Shields missed 4½ games with a concussion, Rollins played extensively at right corner.
His speed (4.54) remains questionable, but he offered excellent promise as a hitter, ball-hawk and blitzer.
“Sky’s the limit,” another scout said. “He possesses an intuitive feel for a two-year player. He tackled. He’ll be better than Randall.”
Free agent LaDarius Gunter, the third rookie, was active 50 percent of the time and played only 39 snaps. When the Packers concluded offseason workouts six weeks ago, Whitt called it almost dead even among the three.
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“‘Gunt’ came out of (2015) preseason playing better than the other two,” Whitt said. “Some things that kept him from being up were special-teams things that I think we have addressed now."
Gunter ran a slow 40 (4.65) at Miami that ruined his chances of being drafted. He’s a worker, has long arms and gets after receivers.
“He’s right with those other two guys,” Whitt said. “He’s going to be in the conversation. I mean, he can cover.”
Despite playing just 64.2 percent of the downs Shields had his best season. “Incredibly talented” was the description of one personnel man.
“He played better than good,” Whitt said. “I don’t know if there’s anybody other than (Arizona’s) Patrick Peterson that just covered better than him. He’s about an average tackler but he plays with good technique and doesn’t get penalties.”
Demetri Goodson probably would be next but enters his third season facing a four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Said Whitt: “Nothing changes with his (exposure). He does everything really good in practice but he has issues doing it when the pressure’s on.”
Robertson Daniel, a second-year pro, had a full season learning Whitt’s way. He has great size and 4.46 speed.
There also are hopes for Makinton Dorleant and Josh Hawkins, two rookie free agents with blazing speed.
With further development, Clinton-Dix and Burnett could move into the realm of LeRoy Butler’s two Super Bowl seasons (1996-’97) with Eugene Robinson and one great year (2000) with Darren Sharper as the best by a pair of Packers’ safeties in the last 20 years.
“Time will tell,” Perry said. “They’re both really good players. It’s about growth.”
Clinton-Dix, with six interceptions in 36 games, enters the season ranked No. 8 among safeties by Pro Football Weekly.
“He’s getting better,” an NFC executive said late last season. “He’s physical when he wants to be. Not ideal range, but it’s good enough. You can do different things with him because of his skill set.”
Burnett’s role as studious traffic cop in the back half made it easier for Clinton-Dix, Randall, Rollins and others to play effectively early. He has improved steadily handling the run as the eighth man in the box, and for a strong safety his coverage ability is adequate.
“He can go down in the box and affect the run, and he can cover a little bit,” the NFC personnel man said. “He’s got enough range where you can use him interchangeably. He could be considered with the top guys. He just has to have more production on the ball.”
Perry, asked about Burnett’s meager total of two interceptions in the last three years, said, “So much is opportunity. Morgan catches the ball about as well as anybody we got back there.”
Hyde’s modest 4.57 speed enabled others to pass him at corner but his willingness to throw around his body in run support and overall competitiveness earned him a berth as the No. 3 safety.
“Jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” the NFC scout said. “You’ve got to have players like that. Fills a lot of roles.”
Banjo might have been the team’s best player on special teams, has outstanding speed and makes few mistakes.
“Banjo is a solid player,” said Perry. “Works hard. Like Banjo a lot.”
Rookie free agent Kentrell Brice has the physical gifts to push one of the veterans.
Free agent Jermaine Whitehead, who was on the Ravens’ 53-man roster late last season, isn’t as athletic as Brice but might have more coverage ability, is a quick study and could contend, too.
PACKERS BY POSITION: SECONDARY
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Sam Shields 5-10½ 185 28 FA-’10 Miami
Remarkably penalty-free throughout career: one penalty in both 2015 and ’14, two in ’13, five in ’12, none in ’11 and one in ’10.
Damarious Randall 5-11 195 23 D1-’15 Arizona State
Played 73.4 percent of the downs and led team in interceptions with four. Allowed team-high total of 12½ plays of 20 yards or more, most given up by a Green Bay CB since Tramon Williams gave up 16½ in ’11.
Quinten Rollins 5-11 192 24 D2-’15 Miami (Ohio)
Of the seven cornerbacks, his rate of passes defensed (one every 35.7 snaps) and his rate of tackles (one every 9.9) ranked No. 1.
LaDarius Gunter 6-1½ 200 24 FA-’15 Miami
Played 39 snaps from scrimmage (31 at Washington) and wasn’t used much on special teams (59). Started 30 of 37 games for Hurricanes with six picks.
Demetri Goodson 5-11 190 27 D6-’14 Baylor
Didn’t play a down from scrimmage as a rookie and just 74 in 2015, including 49 at Carolina. Three seasons of basketball at Gonzaga, three of football at Baylor.
Robertson Daniel 6-1 203 24 FA-’15 Brigham Young
Rookie free agent cut by Raiders and signed Sept. 7 to Packers’ practice squad. Press-man type corner with 4.46 speed, a 35½-inch vertical jump and 24 reps on the bench press.
Makinton Dorleant 5-10½ 185 23 FA-’16 Northern Iowa
One of just two rookie free agents on defense with a $5,000 signing bonus. Backed up at Maryland in 2011 before starting 40 games at UNI from 2013-’15. Ran 4.39, vertical jump of 39.
Josh Hawkins 5-10½ 190 23 FA-’16 East Carolina
Former walk-on started 28 of 50 games and picked off nine passes in mostly a zone scheme. Ran 4.39, vertical jump of 40½. Tiny hands (8 inches).
Warren Gatewood 5-11½ 188 22 FA-’16 Alcorn State
Pulled hamstring delayed his signing by Packers from April 30 to July 20. Played CB first three seasons, safety in ’15. Ran 4.51, vertical of 36½.
Randall Jette 5-11 193 23 FA-’16 Massachusetts
Hails from Martha’s Vineyard town of Oaks Bluff, Mass. Started 44 games, breaking up 36 and intercepting nine. Ran just 4.65 at disappointing pro day.
Player Ht. Wt. Age Acquired College
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix 6-1½ 210 23 D1-’14 Alabama
Trimmed missed-tackle total from 16 to nine and his yield of 20-plus plays from 8½ to three. Finished as team’s best blitzer with one pressure every 5.5 blitzes. On field for 1,186 of 1,189 snaps in ’15.
Morgan Burnett 6-1½ 210 27 D3-’10 Georgia Tech
Unanimous choice for the first time (SS) on the All-NFC North team. Finished second at FS in 2011 and ’13, tied for first at SS in ’12 and ’14.
Micah Hyde 5-11½ 198 25 D5-’13 Iowa
Started five of first six games at SS for an injured Burnett before seeing extensive duty as dime back covering TEs. Had rough year in coverage, allowing a team-high 4½ TD passes and five passes of 20 yards or more.
Chris Banjo 5-10 208 26 FA-’13 Southern Methodist
Has been in Green Bay since Jaguars cut him as a rookie free agent just before start of training camp in 2013. Played 192 snaps as a rookie, none in ’14 and 102 last year. Short but fast (4.46).
Kentrell Brice 5-11½ 201 21 FA-’16 Louisiana Tech
Tremendous tester: 4.43 40, vertical of 42, broad jump of 11-3, 21 reps on the bench. Benched in mid-2013 after bungled coverage against UTEP but regained job in 2014-’15.
Jermaine Whitehead 5-11 195 23 FA-’16 Auburn
The 49ers guaranteed $15,000 of his rookie free-agent contract in ’15. Plucked by Ravens from 49ers’ practice squad Dec. 23 and was inactive for two games. Cut May 16 and signed by Packers two days later. Smart (Wonderlic of 27), ran 4.51.
Marwin Evans 5-11½ 208 23 FA-’16 Utah State
Played at Oak Creek High School and pair of junior colleges before becoming a starter at Utah State in ’15. Turned heads with impressive pro day: 4.47, vertical jump of 42.
Acquisition categories: FA means free agent, D1 means first-round draft choice.