Reshuffled secondary big key to Packers' hopes
Eighth in a nine-part Packers by Position series.
GREEN BAY - Recycle the calendar 12 months, back to when the Green Bay Packers were entering training camp 2016, and their secondary was facing a much different forecast.
Remember, this was supposed to be the one area on the Packers' defense they didn’t have to fret. They possessed an asset not every NFL team can match — a legitimate No. 1 cornerback. Behind Sam Shields, there was a bevy of developmental defensive backs with high upside, including the only first-round cornerback general manager Ted Thompson has drafted.
This was before Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins fell into their sophomore slump. Before the Packers were torched for 670 passing yards and seven touchdowns with zero interceptions in consecutive November road blowouts. Before the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense let Julio Jones compile a one-game highlight reel in the NFC championship game.
“I knew there were going to be some growing pains that we’d have to work through,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said. “I didn’t think it was going to be as hard as it was.”
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Twelve months ago, the Packers expected their cornerback group to be a strength — and for good reason. It was enough to let Casey Hayward walk in free agency last spring. Hayward led the NFL with seven interceptions in his first season with the now-Los Angeles Chargers, but only revisionist history would fault Thompson’s decision.
Knowing what the Packers knew then, Hayward’s departure was the right move.
A lot can change in 12 months. As the Packers enter training camp 2017, their secondary is the clearest obstacle preventing a team built for the Super Bowl from reaching it. The Packers can’t rank among the league’s bottom five in yards, touchdowns and passer rating and expect to win a championship, no matter how many points the offense scores.
“If the cornerback and the quarterback plays well,” Whitt said, “this team has a chance. Last year we didn’t play well enough. That’s just the simple facts. I do a regression board of all the past defensive stats. In 2015, we finished third in the league. We were top 10 in every pass category. But last year we finished 27th in the league. We were in the bottom half of most.
“… Just a lot of things that we normally don’t do, we did last year. We have to make sure that we can get back to playing the styles of getting hands on, getting the ball and allowing our safeties and our linebackers not to have to protect us but to get in there and make plays.”
Davon House (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 195; Age: 28; Acquired: FA-’17; College: New Mexico State) House gives the Packers something they lacked in Shields’ absence a year ago: a veteran cornerback. Even more, he’s intimately familiar with defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ press-man scheme, with the size and length to play it well. The Packers wanted to retain House as a free agent two years ago, but when the Jacksonville Jaguars offered $24 million over four years, his price tag became too rich for general manager Ted Thompson.
Now, the Packers would like House to be their stopgap No. 1 corner until rookie Kevin King is ready to assume that responsibility, but he’ll have to be much better than he was last season. A year after setting the Jaguars' franchise record with 23 pass breakups and a team-high four interceptions in 2015, House did not resemble the same player last season. It was hard to quantify why House struggled in 2016. On film, there was no noticeable lapse in speed or quickness, leading the Packers to believe he can duplicate his 2015 production given the proper scheme.
As the position’s lone veteran, House will be looked to for leadership. He learned from veterans such as Charles Woodson, TramonWilliams and Shields when he was a younger player, and now wants to impart those lessons.
“Davon has really matured,” Whitt said. “Out of probably anybody I’ve ever coached he’s come further than everybody with just the developing and learning. He still hasa ways to go, but the kid has a skill set that if he can tap into what he can do, he can be special.”
Kevin King (Ht.: 6-3; Wt.: 200; Age: 22; Acquired: D2-’17; College: Washington)
His college film flashed plenty of speed, but King surprised people when he ran a 4.43-second dash at the combine. At his size and length (32-inch arms), corners aren’t expected to run that fast. What’s most impressive is King’s ability to bend at his size, with fluid hips and good feet. King lined up everywhere in college, though he’ll be mostly a perimeter corner with the Packers. He showed good ball skills and potential to develop into the No. 1 cornerback the Packers need.
Whether the Packers can be patient with King’s development depends on how his fellow corners respond to their struggles last season, but the goal should be to start as early as possible.
Damarious Randall (Ht.: 5-11; Wt.: 196; Age: 24; Acquired: D1-’15; College: Arizona State)
If he stays healthy, Randall will play more snaps this fall, regardless of whether he loses his perimeter corner job.
A groin injury requiring midseason surgery robbed Randall of six games last season. He returned at his earliest possible date, perhaps before he was fully ready. It showed in his play.
Randall will have a target on his back in camp after his sophomore slump. The Packers tried to make things easier on Randall, moving him inside to the slot this spring. He’ll become their third corner in the preferred nickel package, a position Micah Hyde, Hayward and even Woodson played in Capers’ system over the years.
The hope is Randall’s quickness, matched with his ball skills and familiarity playing the middle of the field as a college safety, allows him to be a playmaker on multiple levels.
LaDarius Gunter (Ht.: 6-2; Wt.: 201; Age: 25; Acquired: UDFA-’15; College: Miami)
Gunter was a godsend for the battered Packers secondary last season. Of the trio from the 2015 class, he was the only one to play all 16 games, making 15 starts. His 859 snaps were a dramatic increase from the eight he played as a rookie.
His best role may be as a primary backup on the perimeter, but Gunter showed last season he can be a starter if needed. Ultimately, the grind of lining up across from the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., DezBryant and Julio Jones each week proved to be too grueling for the undrafted corner out of Miami.
“Hopefully with the addition of the men that we add back to the room,” Whitt said, “we can take a little bit of that stress off his play, and if he doesn’t have to take some of the coverages that Sam (Shields) was taking, he’s going to play at a higher level consistently throughout the year."
Quinten Rollins (Ht.: 5-11; Wt.: 195; Age: 25; Acquired: D2-’15; College: Miami of Ohio)
Rollins enters a camp that may be a make-or-break crossroads in his career. Although only entering the third year of his career, Rollins turned 25 this month. He is no longer consideredyoung, and must show better play than last season.
A groin injury was at least partially to blame for his struggles. Unlike Randall, Rollins mostly played through his injury, which did not require surgery. He missed only three games, playing 200 more snaps than Randall.
Most alarming is Rollins’ lack of big plays. The Packers drafted him in the second round because of his ball skills. Rollins had seven interceptions in his lone college season, but only three in his first two NFL seasons.
Demetri Goodson (Ht.: 5-11; Wt.: 197; Age: 28; Acquired: D6-’14; College: Baylor)
Goodson’s ability on special teams would secure a job, but first, he must prove his torn ACL from last November didn’t diminish the athletic ability required to cover punts and kicks. Six months removed from the injury, Goodson was sprinting, cutting and doing backpedal drills at the Packers' organized team activities. It was a good sign his progression is on the right track.
Josh Hawkins (Ht.: 5-10; Wt.: 189; Age: 24; Acquired: UDFA-’16; College: East Carolina)
Hawkins played only one snap after allowing a 73-yard touchdown pass to Detroit Lions receiver Marvin Jones before halftime in Week 3, though he stayed on the roster and played 11 games, including 92 snaps on special teams.
Herb Waters (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 188; Age: 24; Acquired: UDFA-’16; College: Miami)
A college receiver, Waters transitioned to the defensive backfield after he signed as a rookie free agent. He did not appear in a game lastseason, but was on the active playoff roster. Waters missed time this offseason with a right arm injury, but Whitt had been impressed with his progress.
“He’s further along at this point than I thought he would be,” Whitt said. “I hate that he got hurt. Hopefully, he’ll be ready for training camp. If he is, he’s going to give Gunt, Q, D, Kevin, House — he has that ability in his body that, don’t be surprised. Like I told you in ’09 about Tramon (Williams), I said that Tramon was the best cover guy that we had. I think you thought I was crazy at the time, but at the end of the year and going into ’10, he was. This kid has that type of ability.”
Donatello Brown (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 190; Age: 26; Acquired: UDFA-’17; College: Valdosta State)
Took a two-year hiatus from football after being declared academically ineligible in 2011. Worked in fast food and auto repair in Atlanta before returning in 2014. A three-year starter for ValdostaState, finished with 45 tackles and three interceptions.
Lenzy Pipkins (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 196; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-’17; College: Oklahoma State)
Played track and football before trying out football for the first time as a high school senior. Started college career at Louisiana-Monroe but moved to Oklahoma State as a graduate transfer in 2016. Finished with three interceptions inlone year with Cowboys, missing three games with a broken forearm.
Daquan Holmes (Ht.: 5-11; Wt.: 187; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-’17; College: American International)
Signed with Packers in June. Named first-team Northeast-10 Conference each of final two seasons.
Raysean Pringle (Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 191; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-’17; College: Southern Utah)
Signed with Packers out of rookie camp. Played running back and receiver in college. Also spent time askick returner.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Ht.: 6-1; Wt.: 208; Age: 24; Acquired: D1-’14; College: Alabama)
An iron man on the back end of the Packers' defense, Clinton-Dix has exceeded 1,000 snaps each of his past two seasons after playing 942 snaps as a rookie. A first-round pick in 2014, he became the Packers' first opening rounder to have his fifth-year option picked up, a no-brainer decision. Clinton-Dix hasn’t just been durable. A second-team All-Pro last season, his five interceptions tied with New York Giants’ Landon Collins for the lead among NFC safeties.
The Packers are pushing him to grow even more. Safeties coach Darren Perry noted last season that ofClinton-Dix’s eight interceptions, not one has been returned for a touchdown. The Packers see Clinton-Dix becomingpart enforcer, part playmaker, the type of foundational player around whom the defense can build.
Morgan Burnett (Ht.: 6-1; Wt.: 209; Age: 28; Acquired: D3-’10; College: Georgia Tech)
Entering his contract year, Burnett remains the proven leader in the Packers' secondary, a quarterback on defense. His leadership has long brought value, but in recent years his versatility has every bit as important. Especially tough against the run, Burnett represents the new-era safety. He’s capable of dropping into the box as asubpackage linebacker, a role the Packers started last season and might use even more this fall.
Kentrell Brice (Ht.: 5-11; Wt.: 200; Age: 22; Acquired: UDFA-’16; College: Louisiana Tech)
Brice is something of a wild card after being undrafted a year ago. He was the best among a bloated rookie free-agent class, appearing in all 16 games with one start. His 258 snaps ranked third among all Packers rookies, behind fourth-round linebacker Blake Martinez (438) and first-round defensive tackle Kenny Clark (333). Brice’s playing time picked up late in the season, exceeding 40 snaps for the first time in Week 16 against the Minnesota Vikings, then again in the Packers' finale at Detroit.
In his second season, Brice could hold the keys to the Packers’ plans on the back end. He’ll be asked to replace departed free agent Micah Hyde as the team’s third safety. If he’s successful, it would not only give the Packers depth at the position but also flexibility to move rookie Josh Jones into the box as asubpackage linebacker.
Josh Jones (Ht.: 6-2; Wt.: 220; Age: 22; Acquired: D2-’17; College: North Carolina State)
Jones’ role figures to be more as a linebacker than a safety, regardless of where Burnett’s snaps come this fall. He can play both safety spots but has ideal size to be a hybrid linebacker, upgrading the Packers' underneath pass coverage in the middle of the field — a significant weak spot for years. Already, Jones has shown he can pick up multiple positions.
With a 4.40-second dash at the combine, Jones is the fastest player on the Packers' defense. He flashed his closing ability this spring, making several plays in non-contact passing drills. It was a surprise for Jones to be on the board when the Packers came on the clock with their 61st overall pick.
Marwin Evans (Ht.: 5-11; Wt.: 211; Age: 24; Acquired: UDFA-’16; College: Utah State)
A solid special teams contributor last season (216 snaps), the athletic Evans gives the Packers a solid developmental defender. Only played 18 snaps on defense last season but appeared in all 16 games.
Jermaine Whitehead (Ht.: 5-11; Wt.: 195; Age: 24; Acquired: FA-’16; College: Auburn)
Cut after his blown assignment cost the Packers a touchdown on the opening kickoff return against the Indianapolis Colts, Whitehead was quickly signed to the practice squad two days after his release.
Aaron Taylor (Ht.: 5-11; Wt.: 206; Age: 23; Acquired: UDFA-’17; College: Ball State)
Wearing a familiar jersey number, Taylor might catch some double takes from fans in the stands at Ray Nitschke Field this summer. The Packers gave Taylor the No. 37 jersey — worn most recently by Shields — after he was signed following a May tryout. Taylor started 29 games at Ball State, finishing with 208 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 3½ sacks and four passes defended.