Dougherty: Packers facing major overhaul at cornerback

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall (23) watches his interception on the stadium screen against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Pittsburgh, Penn.

The Green Bay Packers clearly didn’t view Damarious Randall as the slot cornerback for new coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense and just as clearly wanted Randall out of their locker room.

But now that they’ve shipped the former first-round pick to Cleveland, they also have a lot of work to do at cornerback in the next seven weeks.

They didn’t get all that much in return for Randall unless they can unlock something in quarterback DeShone Kizer that the Browns’ new front office doesn’t think is there. But with the trade, general manager Brian Gutekunst now has committed to almost completely overhauling his cornerback corps through free agency and the draft.

In essence, he’s forcing himself to sign two cornerbacks in free agency – at least one and maybe both to substantial contracts – and spending what figures to be a high draft pick at that position as well.

Gutekunst figured to be active at that position anyway, but with Randall gone it’s even more imperative now.

A couple of points come to mind after the new GM’s first major move.

One, slot cornerback has become a crucial, specialized position in today’s NFL. The nickel cornerback has to cover receivers, tight ends and running backs, be a physical tackler in the run the game and have the instincts and explosiveness to blitz effectively. He lines up in the middle of the field and can have a profound impact on the game.

The Packers clearly didn’t see Randall as that player. Slot corner is his best position and he has some ballhawk in him, but he wasn’t a physical tackler and never did anything as a blitzer that jumped out (no sacks in his three NFL seasons). If he had more of those qualities, the Packers probably would have overlooked his meltdown against Chicago last season that got him banished to the locker room for pouting after being benched. Then again, if he’d shown more of those qualities, he probably never would have been benched in the first place.

The Packers didn’t cut Randall after that episode because he was the most talented player in their undermanned cornerback corps. And he played pretty good football for them the rest of the year. But they obviously had no intention of bringing him back in 2018. It’s safe to say coach Mike McCarthy didn’t want Randall in the locker room.

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Still, it says something about Randall’s talent that Cleveland is willing to take him on, even if the Browns were equally eager to move on from Kizer. Browns general manager John Dorsey never would have made the trade if he didn’t get a thumbs up from the two front-office executives he signed away from the Packers this offseason, Alonzo Highsmith and Eliot Wolf. They must think the Browns’ coaching staff might get something more out of the temperamental Randall that the Packers’ didn’t.

The main issue now is where the Packers go at cornerback from here. It’s a given they will sign at least one expensive cornerback in free agency, right? You can’t win in this match-up league anymore without several cover men who can give your defense a fighting chance against good quarterbacks. Gutekunst has to be looking to add at least three capable players at that position who can help in the here and now.

The free-agent market at that position actually isn’t bad. Among the cornerbacks likely to be available when free agency opens next week are the Los Angeles Rams’ Trumaine Johnson, New England’s Malcolm Butler, Philadelphia’s Patrick Robinson, Jacksonville’s Aaron Colvin, the New York Jets’ Morris Claiborne, Buffalo’s E.J. Gaines, Washington’s Bashaud Breeland and the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Seattle’s Richard Sherman reportedly signed Saturday with San Francisco and Chicago placed its transition tag on Kyle Fuller, so any team signing him has the added challenge of structuring a deal the Bears won’t match.  

Johnson will probably be the most expensive cornerback on the market. Josh Norman is the highest-paid player at that position at $15 million a year, and Johnson very well could sign a new deal in that range. We have no history on Gutekunst, so you never know if he will spend that big. We'll just have to wait and see.

Still, if he wants a real starting cornerback, he’s going to have to pay. We’re talking in the $7 million to $10 million range, at least, and very likely more.

With the Packers’ shortage of cornerbacks – Kevin King is the lone returner of starting quality – it seems a given Gutekunst needs to sign a veteran-backup type, too. Tramon Williams is available, and while his age (35 next week) normally would be a deal breaker, he might be an exception as a one-year stopgap. Besides his stellar years with the Packers, Williams played two seasons for Pettine in Cleveland and is a springy-enough athlete that he might still have another season in him as a backup.

Also, with the Packers’ nickel job open, you have to wonder if a player they covet in next month’s draft is Florida State’s Derwin James. He’s a safety by trade but, if the Packers think he covers well enough, might be just the kind of versatile slot playmaker they’re looking for. He might not make it to their pick at No. 14 overall, so if Gutekunst really wants him the GM might have to trade up a few spots.

As for the player on the other side of the trade, Kizer, it looks like he’ll duke it out with Brett Hundley for the Packers’ No. 2 quarterback job. Gutekunst wouldn’t have made this deal unless McCarthy was on board, so McCarthy must see something in Kizer that Cleveland didn’t in his winless (0-15) rookie season as the Browns’ starter.

Based on the Packers’ win over the Browns in Cleveland last season, Kizer definitely has more arm talent than Hundley. But whether he’s any better a quarterback, I don’t know. Kizer’s 4-8 record in his final season at Notre Dame and inability to win even one of 15 starts last season, including the loss to Hundley, make you wonder.

Either way, this very much is shaping up as an offseason of big change on the Packers’ roster. Gutekunst has said he wants to be in the hunt on more free agents than his predecessor. But he’s going to have to be more than in. He’s going to have to actually win on several signings if the Packers are going to be any good on defense in 2018.

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