GREEN BAY - When training camp opened, the Green Bay Packers had good reason to expect their cornerback position would be among their strengths.
It’s easy to forget now. Easy to revise history. Memories are short, shaded with the wreckage that became the 2016 Packers pass defense.
“Like anything,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “hindsight is 20/20.”
What was supposed to be among the Packers' greatest strengths became the biggest reason their 2016 season ended short of the Super Bowl. The death blow to their season came in Week 1, when cornerback Sam Shields jogged off the field in Jacksonville with his fifth documented concussion, never to return.
The Packers never recovered.
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Even now, McCarthy said, Shields has not yet cleared concussion protocol. After the NFC championship game in Atlanta, Shields said he still was feeling concussion symptoms more than four months later. Shields, with one year and $9 million left on his contract, also said he wants to return next season.
Asked whether Shields might be on the Packers' roster in 2017, McCarthy said he “can’t answer that question” in the present. Then McCarthy offered an open plea for Shields to think about his own safety, not his career.
“I think we can all focus on Sam getting healthy,” McCarthy said. “Having a chance to visit with Sam in Atlanta briefly, he needs to get healthy for himself and his family. That’s the primary focus.”
The Packers' primary focus must be returning their cornerback position to an acceptable level for a team hoping to end its six-year Super Bowl drought. In that regard, it will be a very different offseason than a year ago.
So confident was general manager Ted Thompson in the state of his secondary last offseason, he made no real effort to retain cornerback Casey Hayward. Hayward was selected to the Pro Bowl this season after his seven interceptions with the San Diego Chargers led the NFL, subjecting Thompson to all kinds of second-guessing. But Thompson’s evaluation at the time was fair.
With Shields, the Packers had a legitimate No. 1 cornerback — something not every team possesses. Behind him was a trio from the team’s 2015 rookie class — first-rounder Damarious Randall, second-rounder Quinten Rollins and undrafted free agent LaDarius Gunter — that appeared ready to take the next step.
The young trio combined to play 1,293 snaps in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus. They allowed four touchdown passes against six interceptions. None of the three allowed a passer rating above 87.6 or a completion percentage above 58.2.
“They did a lot of good things in their first year,” McCarthy said. “We have a long history here in the last 11 years of first-year players making a big jump in their second year. So you have to factor that into those types of decisions.”
That long history didn’t amount to much.
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Of the three, only Gunter made a positive jump in 2016. His snaps increased from 40 as a rookie to 1,055 in his second season, more than Randall or Rollins. He allowed eight touchdowns with no interceptions and was outmatched shadowing No. 1 receivers in the playoffs.
Odell Beckham Jr. punched a hole into Lambeau Field’s interior wall after four quarters against Gunter, but the true test of a No. 1 cornerback is surviving tough matchups each week. Dez Bryant had nine catches, 132 yards and two touchdowns primarily against Gunter. Julio Jones ran through Gunter’s holding penalty, breaking off a 73-yard touchdown catch early in the NFC championship game’s third quarter, part of Jones’ nine catches, 180 yards and two touchdowns.
And Gunter was the bright spot for the Packers' cornerback depth chart.
“We just really never had any consistency,” McCarthy said, “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.”
Gunter’s 112.4 opposing passer rating was best among the Packers' young trio, according to Pro Football Focus. So was his 58.5 completion percentage allowed.
Rollins’ seven touchdowns allowed and one interception were better than Gunter’s ratio, but his 133.8 opposing passer rating was highest among the three. Rollins also allowed the highest completion clip at 71.4 percent.
For comparison, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford set the NFL single-season record with a 71.6 completion percentage this season.
As for Randall, the Packers' first pick after their NFC title game loss in Seattle, his regression was most alarming. Randall’s snaps dipped from 885 to 692. His completion percentage allowed climbed to 63.6, up 5.4 points from his rookie season. A year after allowing four touchdowns with four interceptions, Randall allowed 10 touchdowns with four interceptions in 2016.
“Both Randall and Q Rollins,” McCarthy said, “had multiple injuries to deal with, too. It was a tough year for the cornerback position. I thought (cornerbacks coach) Joe Whitt did a tremendous job getting those guys ready.”
Randall missed six games this season, including five after having groin surgery in October. Randall intercepted Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson twice in December, but otherwise never looked the same after returning from surgery. Perhaps the only part of his game that struggled more than coverage was his tackling, most glaringly on Jones’ 73-yard touchdown in the NFC title game.
Rollins missed three games with injury during the regular season. He also missed the Packers' wild-card and divisional-round games after having a concussion in the regular-season finale at Detroit.
So the question for the Packers to answer this season is whether Randall's and Rollins’ regressions were because of injury, or something else. A year ago, receiver Davante Adams struggled in his second season not only because of injuries but also the absence of top receiver Jordy Nelson. When Nelson returned in 2016, so did Adams’ success.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to be gained from 2016 is the value of a true No. 1 cornerback. Perimeter pass defense immediately leaps to the top of the Packers' draft needs, but another young cornerback might not solve the problem. It’s never a likely bet Thompson will dip into free agency, but the Packers' cornerback depth chart screams for veteran experience.
Even if it won’t come from Shields.
“We’re just getting started in the evaluation process,” McCarthy said. “We’re not making any of those kind of decisions today. Having a chance to meet with both those guys (Randall and Rollins), I’m excited about their future. I think they’re both going to be really good players for us.
“I think both those guys will definitely grow for their experience this year, because they had a lot of adversity that they had to deal with.”