Michael Cohen and Ryan Wood discuss the many differences between the Packers and Giants now compared to when they played each other in October. (Jan. 4, 2017)
GREEN BAY - With so many injuries to so many cornerbacks, there’s a good chance the Green Bay Packers won’t know the exact makeup of their secondary until a few hours before kickoff Sunday against the New York Giants. But as the web began to unravel during the Packers’ first practice of the week Wednesday, the situation is not as bleak as it may seem.
Cornerback Quinten Rollins, who exited Sunday’s win over Detroit on a stretcher after an awkward fall in the third quarter, was placed in the concussion protocol as he recovers from head and neck injuries. The positive signs exhibited during the last 72 hours have continued, according to coach Mike McCarthy, though it seems unlikely Rollins will be available this weekend.
The thinning ranks forced general manager Ted Thompson to bolster his roster by promoting wide receiver-turned-cornerback Herb Waters from the practice squad. Waters takes the place of rookie corner Makinton Dorleant, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday after hurting his knee against the Lions.
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It leaves the Packers with five “healthy” corners on the active roster ahead of Sunday’s game: LaDarius Gunter, Damarious Randall, Micah Hyde, Josh Hawkins and Waters.
“Hopefully we'll be better than where we were last week,” McCarthy said. “That's the big thing.”
Depleted though they may sound, the Packers are still in reasonable shape if no one gets injured between now and the final horn Sunday. Randall, who injured his knee Sunday night, was a limited participant in practice but seems a good bet to play, and that would enable the Packers to deploy a secondary resembling the model they’ve used all season.
With Gunter and Randall on the perimeter, Hyde could return to his traditional role as the nickel corner. This allows safety Morgan Burnett to slide forward as a slot corner in the dime defense as rookie Kentrell Brice takes his spot opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. It’s an alignment the Packers have used quite frequently this season, and Hawkins likely would be next in line.
“They’ve got a few guys banged up but they have some veteran guys and some smart players,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. “When you’ve got Morgan, you’ve got Ha Ha, these guys can play at all different positions and they can fill in and do a good job.”
Promoting Waters affords defensive coordinator Dom Capers and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. some semblance of depth ahead of kickoff, though the quality of that depth has yet to be seen.
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Waters, who stands 5-11½ and weighs 192 pounds, signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent from Miami, where he played receiver all four years. He went through OTAs, minicamp and training camp as a wide receiver before the coaching staff switched his position in mid-September, at which point Waters was a member of the practice squad. He has worked with the receivers ever since.
“I don’t necessarily look at anything other than skill sets," Whitt said of Waters shortly after the position change in September. “And he has the skill set that I like. He has long arms, he can bend, he has good balance, he has the height. And so now can we work those skill sets into playing defensive back. That’s my challenge and I’m excited to work with him.”
The decision to convert Waters to cornerback likely was born of injury woes in the first place. Dorleant (hamstring, placed on IR), Hawkins (hamstring, missed several weeks) and No. 1 corner Sam Shields (concussion, out for the year) all were injured at the time of the switch, and of those three only Hawkins has returned to a measureable degree.
Waters said Whitt mentioned the idea several times before finally making the switch official, though Waters ultimately had the final say. For weeks they could be seen working off to the side at practice as Waters learned to invert himself at the line of scrimmage — backpedaling instead of running forward.
“I've got to give all the credit to Coach Joe,” Waters said Wednesday in his first interview since changing positions, because practice squad players are off limits to the media. “He had been there for me, never gave up on me. He always stayed by my side, even when I felt I wasn't fit for it, he still persuaded and kept my confidence up high, so I've got to tip my hat off to Coach Joe.”
It seems improbable that Waters would be asked to play against the Giants barring another spat of injuries during the game, and in all likelihood he and Hawkins will remain on the sideline.
But Waters ran the 40-yard dash in 4.50 seconds coming out of Miami, so don’t be surprised if special teams coordinator Ron Zook finds him a spot on the field.
“I think it's just a great credit to Herb and a credit to Joe Whitt," McCarthy said. "He's a young man that's got a lot in front of him. I'm excited for him personally because I know what he's put into it. I thought he was a good receiver prospect, too. He's worked his tail off.
"It's about opportunities and Herb has done a great job making this switch and doing the extra stuff. I'm very proud of him for what he's done and really putting us in a position to bring him up because that obviously tells you how we feel about him."