Aaron Nagler talks to Ryan Wood about Mike McCarthy's comments "promising" the team will have more running backs on the roster by May. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
PHOENIX – It was a thankless task, one Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy met without joy. As part of the NFL’s competition committee, Murphy watched every concussive collision from the 2016 season.
All 244 concussions.
“It’s a little depressing to watch it all,” Murphy said.
Early in the chronology, there was a play that instantly looked familiar. A cornerback stuck his head into a tackle, a routine hit against a running back’s shoulder pad. He got up, jogged off to the sideline and didn’t return.
Murphy knew what he was watching might be the last play of Sam Shield’s career. A tackle against Jacksonville Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon in the Packers' 2016 opener.
“The one in Jacksonville was not a significant hit,” Murphy said. “… You’re concerned when you have a serious concussion like that from what looks like a fairly minor hit.”
The Packers are still reeling from the unexpected end to Shields’ time in Green Bay, and likely his career. They never recovered from his absence through the final 15 regular-season games and playoff run last season, and still haven’t replaced him this offseason.
The Packers have lost seven players in free agency. More than 3,500 snaps from 2016 are gone. For all their departures, the most significant void on their roster was created when Shields was released because he couldn’t clear concussion protocol.
“Sam’s situation is just unfortunate,” Murphy said. “Obviously, a great player. I think years ago, you had players whose careers would end due to concussions. I think for Sam, he just never cleared the protocol.
“Hopefully, he’s better now. You really want to make sure he has a good quality of life going forward.”
There’s no guarantee the Packers can replace Shields. Pro Bowl corners don’t just walk onto the league’s free-agent market. None were available this offseason.
If they do replace Shields, most likely it will take more than one player. Think of what Shields gave the Packers' secondary not as a singular entity, but a list of traits. He had the speed and athleticism needed for a No. 1 cover corner. He had the instincts and experience. He had the trust of his coaches.
The Packers could stick Shields against an opponent’s top receiver without help and trust he’d take a playmaker out of the game. Last season, no one else on the Packers' cornerback depth chart was capable of duplicating his one-on-one competence. LaDarius Gunter came the closest with his length and physicality in press-man coverage, but the Packers still provided safety help when he was matched against receivers such as Odell Beckham Jr., Dez Bryant and Julio Jones.
Without Shields, experience is badly lacking in the Packers' secondary. Which is why signing cornerback Davon House was useful. House, a 2011 fourth-round pick, immediately becomes the most seasoned corner for the team that drafted him. He has started 34 games in his six seasons, more than Damarious Randall (18) and Quinten Rollins (14) combined.
“The inexperience there caught up to us,” coach Mike McCarthy said of his cornerback depth chart after Shields’ concussion. “We had young guys playing in there, battling. They did a heck of a job, but they were put in some tough, tough situations. Particularly the type of games we got into the second half of the season, we were pretty much playing playoff games there from November on. So you learn from that.”
House won’t fill Shields’ void on his own. He might not be a full-time starter. After starting 15 games with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2015, he started only four of the 16 last season.
This spring, the Jaguars were ready to move on from House midway through a four-year, $24 million contract. They preferred to find a trading partner, but when no option materialized, they released him.
House had four interceptions and 23 defended passes in 2015, but his first season in Jacksonville wasn’t without turbulence. In October, House was benched for two quarters a week after allowing two fourth-quarter touchdown catches against Houston Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He started the first four games last season, but lost his job to Prince Amukamara and never regained it. A week after losing his starting job, House played one snap against the Chicago Bears.
The reason House struggled in Jacksonville is unclear. One option that can’t be ignored entirely is a falling out with Jaguars coaches. In January, House told the Florida Times-Union his benching was “not football-related.” He looked forward to a fresh start after the Jaguars fired coach Gus Bradley.
In Green Bay, he’ll get a fresh start with a team that never wanted House to leave. The Packers were unwilling to match the Jaguars offer two years ago, showing a financial restraint even with their own players that has been common again this spring. But they didn’t question whether he could help their secondary.
House found a team that likes his potential, in a system he already knows. He signed a one-year, $2.8 million contract to return to the Packers, but McCarthy said he wants the veteran corner to be around longer.
“The experience, number one, is so valuable,” McCarthy said. “Plus, we still consider Davon one of our guys. We drafted him, and I know he’s excited to be back in Green Bay. And it’s very mutual.
“I just look for him to come in here and claim his opportunity and make the most of it, and hopefully he’s here for a long time.”
The Packers will count on improvement to come from within their roster. They’ll target cornerbacks in the draft. It might not be enough to replace Shields. Some teams wait years for a legitimate No. 1 cornerback.
House’s 4.5-second 40 won’t make a secondary that needs more speed any faster. But he’s another capable body, and a veteran presence the Packers dearly needed. It doesn’t replace Shields, but House’s experience gives the Packers something they lacked after losing their No. 1 corner.
“Our cornerback position was hit hard due to injury,” McCarthy said. “I think you have to really just look at the numbers there, because that’s another primary position.”