Packers in need of veteran talent at cornerback
Seventh in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series.
GREEN BAY – With his pass defense in shambles last offseason, general manager Ted Thompson utilized free agency, the draft and even a noteworthy player release in an effort to upgrade the Green Bay Packers' depth chart at cornerback.
It started last March when, as part of Thompson’s unprecedented free-agent spree, the Packers reunited with 2011 fourth-round pick Davon House. House lent a veteran voice to a young depth chart as someone who not only knew the Packers’ defense but also had seen more of the NFL than his new teammates after two seasons in Jacksonville.
A month later, Thompson revealed his top offseason priority when he traded down and used his first draft pick to select cornerback Kevin King. With the Packers’ original pick at No. 29, Thompson passed on drafting former Wisconsin edge rusher T.J. Watt, who instead went to the Pittsburgh Steelers one pick later. King endured an injury-riddled season without an interception and was placed on injured reserve after undergoing shoulder surgery in early December.
Thompson showed in early September just how serious he was about improving the Packers’ cornerback situation. A day after the season opener, he released third-year cornerback LaDarius Gunter. In 2016, Gunter led Packers cornerbacks in snaps. He was matched against the opponent’s top receiver throughout their playoff march to the NFC Championship game. But Gunter (4.69) couldn’t run at an NFL level, so Thompson cut him.
When the season opened, four of the Packers’ seven cornerbacks were new to the roster. Gunter’s release left the Packers with only two holdovers: Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
But all the changes netted virtually the same results.
After finishing 31st against the pass in 2016, the Packers improved only to 23rd in passing yards allowed last season. They actually slipped in opponent passer rating — a more telling stat for overall pass defense — from 26th in 2016 to 31st last season.
Several elements factor into solid pass defense, and the Packers’ absent pass rush, shoddy coverage from linebackers and underwhelming safety play didn’t help. But it’s clear the Packers need better production from their corners.
New general manager Brian Gutekunst inherits Thompson’s mess at cornerback, and another busy offseason at the position seems warranted.
On paper, the Packers appear to have at least one building block. The best thing that happened for their cornerback position in 2017 was Randall’s rebound. After a dismal sophomore slump, Randall had a fine third season. His trajectory has been reminiscent of receiver Davante Adams, who followed a terrible second season with a promising third, and then a stellar fourth. If Randall can have the kind of fourth season Adams just completed, the Packers will have a standout corner. As it is, Randall has shown good ball skills in a secondary severely lacking playmakers.
It’s too early to know what kind of player King will become — and, to hear him discuss the future, it’s clear he has the confidence to be a No. 1 corner — but his history of shoulder injuries is cause for long-term concern. King’s rookie season ended because his left shoulder wouldn’t stop popping out of its socket, eventually requiring surgery. He also had shoulder surgery after his freshman season at Washington, and it’s possible shoulder problems will recur throughout his career. If King stays healthy, he showed enough promise to believe he can join Randall as a building block at corner. If not, the Packers eventually might rue passing on Watt.
With Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward and Iowa’s Josh Jackson, the draft will offer plenty of cornerback talent that likely will be taken around the time the Packers are on the clock at No. 14. The Packers need another starting-caliber corner, but adding more young talent isn’t the best approach. The Packers have used their top draft pick on a corner two of the past three years, leaving the depth chart far too inexperienced. Other than House, none of the seven cornerbacks on the Packers’ initial 53-man roster last season was older than 25 or had played more than two NFL seasons. The depth chart beyond House looked like this: a trio of third-year corners (Randall, Rollins, Gunter), a second-year corner formerly undrafted (Josh Hawkins), a second-round rookie (King) and an undrafted rookie (Lenzy Pipkins). Their average age when the season began: 24. What the Packers’ cornerback depth chart really needs is veteran talent. Under a new general manager who emphasized free agency in his introductory news conference, don’t be surprised if the team looks to the open market.
Donatello Brown: The undrafted rookie out of Valdosta State started the season on the practice squad before being promoted to the 53 in early November. His lone snap in four games active came in Packers’ home finale against Minnesota. Good size at 5-11½ and 190 pounds, but 4.5-second 40 is only so-so. Grade: Incomplete
Demetri Goodson: Long road back from torn ACL in 2016 briefly landed him on the 53-man roster in early December. But after only two games (in which he didn’t play), he was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. The former sixth-round pick becomes a free agent when his rookie deal expires in March and his future is hard to decipher because of the medical issues. More of a special-teams player than a corner at this stage in his career. Could provide value on return units if healthy. Grade: Incomplete
Josh Hawkins: Undrafted out of East Carolina, Hawkins saw more opportunities on defense in his second season. After playing almost exclusively on special teams in 2016, he made three starts as an injury replacement at corner. He finished with 403 snaps — more playing time than King (380) — but didn’t do much with them (six passes defended, one fumble forced). Great athlete (4.39) and had some moments (played especially well in the first Chicago game and against Tampa Bay), but too often looked overmatched. Grade: D
Davon House: The free-agent acquisition returned on a one-year contract to the team that drafted him in 2011. But injuries were an issue, beginning when he missed most of the preseason with a pulled hamstring. He showed his toughness late in the season, missing only one game with a transverse process fracture in his back. He had only one interception (against Saints quarterback Drew Brees) and six passes defended. He turns 29 in July. If the Packers re-sign him, his value would be as a veteran backup. Grade: D+
Kevin King: Despite an impressive size-speed combination, he dropped into the draft’s second round because of lingering shoulder concerns. He couldn’t put those concerns to rest in a rookie season that ended prematurely with shoulder surgery. Although King never really was healthy, he didn’t let the bum shoulder prevent him from showing promise. He wasn’t known as a tackler at Washington, but became the Packers’ best-tackling corner as a rookie. A high level of confidence helped him hold his own (despite no interceptions) against some of the NFL’s top receivers. His future hinges on whether he can stay healthy. Grade: C-
Lenzy Pipkins: Only undrafted rookie on offense or defense to crack the initial 53. A hard-nosed corner who impressed the Packers with his work ethic in preseason, he remained on the active roster the entire season, playing 122 snaps in 12 games. The bulk of his playing time came in three games: at Minnesota in Week 6, vs. Minnesota in Week 16 and at Detroit in Week 17. Aggressive and showed a knack for press coverage, but often was overeager and out of position. Grade: D
Damarious Randall: Recovered from a sophomore slump to become the best defensive back on the Packers’ roster. His season turned after a Week 4 benching against Chicago; Randall was sent to the locker room for sulking after allowing a touchdown shortly before halftime. He responded with an interception in each of his next three games and led the Packers with a career-high four, one more than safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Still has much to work on, with too many fundamental breakdowns leading to big plays for opponents. Grade: B-
Quinten Rollins: Appeared to be the Packers’ top cornerback at the onset of camp but lost steam as summer went on and produced next to nothing during the season. His future is in serious doubt after a torn Achilles, an injury that can zap a player’s speed, ended his season after six games. Speed (4.57) already was a significant deficiency before the injury. Since picking off two passes against the Rams as a rookie, Rollins has one interception in his past 29 games. Will need a big offseason to make the 53-man roster. Grade: D-
Herb Waters: Converted receiver from Miami showed potential in the offseason. Drew comparisons to former Packers cornerback Tramon Williams from position coach Joe Whitt, but his season ended on the first day of training camp when a shoulder injury sent him to injured reserve. Grade: Incomplete