Packers emphasizing athleticism in secondary
GREEN BAY – It took Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy 12 swings in the draft to build the Green Bay Packers' offensive line into a stable product capable of protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers from start to finish during the season.
The two devoted two first-round picks, four fourths, four fifths, one sixth and one seventh before they accumulated enough talent and depth to form a five-man unit capable of handling the frequency of throws in McCarthy’s offense and holding blocks a second or two longer than if they were playing with a less-mobile quarterback.
Recognizing the pressure high-octane passing games are putting on defenses around the league, Thompson and McCarthy are approaching the secondary the same way they did the offensive line, attempting to build the same kind of cohesiveness that comes from playing the same guys year after year.
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The two went all-in on the secondary position in an attempt to build a stable unit capable of protecting the defensive backfield from the start of a season to the finish. Stability is now as important there as it is on the offensive line.
“Totally,” McCarthy said this week as the Packers wrapped up their offseason program with a three-day minicamp.
Over the past three years, Thompson and McCarthy have drafted six defensive backs and signed a veteran free agent in an attempt to solidify a soft spot on defense. Of the six picks, two were first-rounders (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Damarious Randall), three were seconds (Quinten Rollins, Kevin King and Josh Jones) and one was a sixth (Demetri Goodson).
The free agent, Davon House, was a fourth-round pick in 2011 who detoured through Jacksonville on his way back to Green Bay.
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“Our biggest challenge was that we had so many guys going through the cornerback position,” McCarthy said of last season. “Teams that are playing the best are the teams that are playing together. Ultimately, one of the best statistics out there is if you look at the success of a football team that plays with the same offensive line the whole year. It’s a great stat. It tells you so much.
“If you have the same group playing together down the stretch, if you have a very healthy team just in the month of December, you’re in it. Going into the playoffs, it’s a huge advantage. But when you’re still rotating guys — it was every week — you can’t really set your plan until Thursday or Friday, it’s a bigger challenge. I’m not trying to make excuses.”
Rather than gamble that his two high picks from the 2015 draft (Randall and Rollins) finally would play to their draft status and avoid injury this coming season, he added King with the 33rd pick and Jones with the 61st pick in April's draft.
It was an extremely good draft for cornerbacks, so Thompson might have been just following his draft board, but the Packers zeroed in on Jones in December with the intention of applying his outstanding physical talents to multiple positions in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ system. They felt King could fill a key spot on the outside and allow Randall and Rollins to compete for time in the slot positions.
Just like on the offensive line, all of the cornerbacks start out learning multiple positions so that they can play anywhere in a pinch. King wasn’t at most of the offseason workouts because of college semester restrictions, but Jones has been and he played just about everywhere but nose tackle.
At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, Jones runs the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds. At 6-foot-3, 200, King runs it at 4.43. At the combine, King had the fastest times of anyone in two of the agility drills (three-cone and short shuttle).
Speed was appealing but what McCarthy really wanted was general athleticism, the ability to perform in numerous roles. The more defensive backs he has capable of playing multiple positions, the less often he’ll have to put a center at left tackle, to use an offensive line analogy.
“There’s been times over the past two years, Ted and I felt their team was moving faster than we were,” McCarthy said. “Did Atlanta have good team speed? Yeah. Especially at home. But we didn’t plan on playing out there.
“I always focus on athletic ability. Do you want to have a fast team? If you ask me based on playing at Lambeau Field eight times a year, I want the athletic ability. I think you see that in our linemen. Speed is a bonus.
“But we’re not a dome team, we’re not a turf team. If you ask me, I want to be a big-boned, long-levered athletic team, playing all your cleats in the ground at Lambeau Field, the snow and the turf.”
It would be negligent not to mention that there were times the offensive line was a mess during the seven years it was under construction. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga missed the better part of two seasons with knee injuries, tackle Derek Sherrod was a bust at left tackle, center JC Tretter missed 24 of his first 32 games with leg injuries, Don Barclay was a liability when he had to start anywhere but right tackle and guard Josh Sitton had to play left tackle in a regular-season finale loss to Minnesota that cost the Packers the 2015 division title.
Though Clinton-Dix has been a smashing success, Randall, Rollins and Goodson have been disappointments, rookie free agent LaDarius Gunter can’t run with fast receivers, safety Kentrell Brice was undrafted for a reason and there’s no guarantee House will be starter-worthy.
And the rookies?
“It’s hard to play, period,” McCarthy said of covering receivers. “It’s a primary position. That’s why I’ve always talked about the second-year player. If you’re putting stress on your team’s success based on rookie production in early-season games, that’s not a good plan.
“Let’s be practical. We all watch the draft and it’s exciting, but when you get down to it, if you’re stressing the success of your team on your rookie class early in the year, that’s a big challenge. I’ve done that with certain segments of our team and it hasn’t worked out.”
The one thing Thompson and McCarthy have done with the heavy emphasis on acquiring defensive backs is give themselves a chance. They’ve got more athletic talent in the secondary than at any time since the Super Bowl XLV season.
They just need some consistency.