Davon House strives to forget 2016, be leader for Packers' defense
GREEN BAY - If the Green Bay Packers penned a handbook based on the draft-and-develop philosophy of general manager Ted Thompson, lesson one would preach the importance of retaining players at the most affordable price.
Several hundred pages later, in a chapter titled Frugality: Advanced Maneuvers, Thompson would share the story of how he found his No. 1 cornerback for the 2017 season. How he drafted the cornerback six years earlier but wound up allowing the player to leave for a lucrative deal in free agency; how the player bottomed out with the Jacksonville Jaguars and was released after his second year away from Green Bay; and how the Packers, who ranked 31st in pass defense a season ago, made the easy decision to re-sign said player off the street in March for less than half his salary from 2016.
At the end, Thompson would reveal his protagonist as cornerback Davon House.
“He picked back up like he never left, fit right in,” safety Morgan Burnett said during the offseason program. “Now he has more years under his belt, so that brings that veteran presence.”
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The Packers have treated House like a premier cornerback ever since he returned to Lambeau Field. They worked him into the first-team defense immediately during organized team activities and asked him to fill a leadership role for a youthful position group that includes Kevin King, the team's top draft pick. He began training camp as the No. 1 corner. He leads the way when the Packers call for individual drills.
But the flip side to that narrative is Thompson’s sizable bet on a player in need of redemption. House endured the worst season of his career in 2016 and was benched after the first four games. Jacksonville released him for a reason, and the Packers are gambling that House can rediscover himself with a better schematic fit in Green Bay, where the secondary desperately needs him.
They signed him to a one-year deal worth $2.8 million.
“It feels good; I feel wanted,” House said after Monday’s practice. “When you can come back to your team that you were with before, at the end of the day you’re one of their guys, so there’s a reason why they drafted you and initially gravitated toward you. Say if I would have went to Pittsburgh or whatnot, I wouldn’t have been their guy, you know what I mean?”
During the draft, teams gravitate toward certain players based on projections of how those players might fit in a given system. At 6-0½ and 197 pounds coming out of New Mexico State, House fit the mold of a big, physical corner with the potential to excel in the Packers’ press-man scheme. House could use his size and strength to fight receivers at the line of scrimmage in hopes of disrupting their routes downfield.
But House was something of a square peg in a round hole upon joining the Jaguars, who signed him to a four-year deal worth $24.5 million in 2015. Though he set a franchise record for pass breakups in his first season — his 23 passes defended ranked third in the NFL — House said the team played heavy doses of zone and sprinkled in some off-man coverage.
In other words, the physical tools that aligned him so well with Green Bay were rarely applicable with the Jaguars.
“My body type, the way I play, it’s best suited for me to be hands-on,” House said. “(We played) a lot more off coverage in Jacksonville, a lot more zone. Not saying I can’t do it, but say if man-to-man was an A for me, I would say playing zone was a C-plus for me. It was just harder for me to make plays in zone than it was in man.”
House had grown restless by the start of his second season in Jacksonville. He checked out mentally and played poorly. He was on the field for 218 snaps through the first four games and finished the year with just 272, benched for what amounted to three full months.
“I was confident in myself, but I wasn’t confident in the things we were taught and the things we were doing there,” House said. “Some of the stuff we were doing I was questioning. I didn’t buy in my second year there like I did my first year there."
Joe Whitt Jr., the cornerbacks coach in Green Bay, put things more succinctly: “House has to perform. He didn’t play well in Jacksonville last year.”
But if House is harboring any nervousness regarding the importance of his role in Green Bay, where the Packers need bounce-back seasons from three of their top four veteran corners, he hides it well. When asked what gives him confidence about a potential revival, House ticks off the reasons in rapid fire: He knows he still has it, his body is two years younger than his resume because he didn’t play as a rookie and he hardly played last season, he feels good and the Packers' defense allows him to harness the press-coverage ability that got him drafted in the first place.
Even in the wake of a forgettable season in Jacksonville, one that ended in his release halfway through a four-year deal, House said he entered free agency looking for the chance to be a No. 1 cornerback. That Green Bay fit his description qualifies as something between fate and good fortune.
“Out of probably anybody I’ve ever coached he’s come further than everybody with just the developing and learning,” Whitt said. “He still has a ways to go, but the kid has a skill set that if he can tap into what he can do, he can be special, he can be one of the good corners that we’ve had here. We’ve had (Charles Woodson, Al Harris, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields) — four or five different guys that made Pro Bowls here. … He has that type of potential in his body. We just have to make sure we get it out of him.”
If it works — if Whitt can extract enough talent to give the Packers a legitimate No. 1 corner, something they haven't had since Shields suffered a potentially career-ending concussion — it will be a fiscal feather in Thompson's hat.