Modest expectations for homegrown CBs means Packers must look elsewhere

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Lenzy Pipkins (41) can't reach the ball intended for Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (11) at Lambeau Field on Saturday, December 23, 2017 in Green Bay, Wis.

ORLANDO, Fla. - Part of the logic behind former Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson cutting ties with left guard Josh Sitton stemmed from the organization’s belief in Lane Taylor, the player asked to replace Sitton on short notice at the start of the 2016 season. Thompson and his scouting department were confident Taylor, a former undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State, would provide enough stability to justify the release of a talented and mercurial veteran with multiple All-Pro honors to his name.

Unable to replicate Sitton’s high level of play, Taylor nonetheless performed admirably and was rewarded with a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension at the start of last season that featured a $5 million signing bonus and, at age 27, made him the Packers’ left guard of the future.

Entrusting an inexperienced and undrafted player to replace one of the league’s best guards was a move that fit nicely on Thompson’s book jacket of how to build a roster from the inside out: Trust the players you’ve already signed and promote from within when the time is right.

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Numerically, the Packers have the resources to replicate Thompson’s bold move in an effort to address obvious deficiencies at the cornerback position. Gone are former first-round pick Damarious Randall and veteran Davon House, and in their place are a slew of former undrafted rookies already under contract. This time, though, there is less faith that quality starters can be found within the confines of Lambeau Field.

“Starters?” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said rhetorically before pausing for several seconds this week at the annual league meeting. “One for sure, but it’s what’s in front of them. They have to develop. They all have something that obviously you love about them, it’s just working on the other things and continuing to develop. I think (pass game coordinator) Joe Whitt and you’ve got (secondary coach) Jason Simmons, those guys are as good as there is, so yeah, they’ll definitely have the opportunity.”

McCarthy declined to say which specific player he was referencing, but Lenzy Pipkins is a quality guess. Pipkins made the 53-man roster last summer after a strong graduate transfer season at Oklahoma State. He played 122 snaps for the Packers and impressed the coaches with his energy, fearlessness and physical brand of tackling. He has a sturdy frame at 6 feet and 202 pounds with enough speed (4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and explosiveness (33½-inch vertical leap) to mature nicely at the NFL level.  

The other homegrown options would be Josh Hawkins, a bonafide speedster who played 407 inconsistent snaps last season; Donatello Brown, a former Division II standout promoted from the practice squad to the active roster in early November, and Herb Waters, a converted wide receiver who sparkled during organized team activities but spent the year on injured reserve after aggravating a shoulder problem early in camp.

“No, we don’t have enough corners right now,” McCarthy said. “I think that’s obvious. But you have a lot of time left until you get that 90-man roster where we want it to be. Free agency is fluid. Brian and the personnel guys are working back and forth. It’s a whole different atmosphere in the personnel department now, and they’re getting ready for the draft. When we come out of the draft and our roster gets up there at 88-89, I think all the positions will have plenty of competition. I mean, that’s my goal.”

At the moment, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s depth chart probably features Kevin King at the top of the ledger with the newly signed, 35-year-old Tramon Williams and former second-round pick Quinten Rollins following behind. If the Packers choose to re-sign House, who became an unrestricted free agent earlier this month, he would likely knock Rollins to fourth.

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Rollins is the wild card in the Packers’ plans after rupturing his Achilles tendon against the Minnesota Vikings last October. Having entered the league with modest speed to begin with — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds at the combine — it’s fair to wonder if such a brutal injury will slow him down even more, though McCarthy said Rollins is doing very well in recovery. Betting on Rollins to recover adequately and raise his level of play would be a risky move.

“It was unfortunate the injury he had, you’re always waiting to see guys come back and where they’re at from those kind of injuries,” Gutekunst said. “He’s another guy that needs to play. Obviously playing one season of college football he had some really good moments early before he got hurt the last couple years. But he needs to play, he needs experience, he needs to grow. We’re looking forward to getting him back.”

Even if Rollins is part of their plans, the Packers are in the market for two and possibly as many as four additional corners during the compilation of their 90-man roster. Perhaps those players will be acquired through the draft, with Gutekunst making a run at one position the way Thompson targeted running backs last spring. Or perhaps they will come through free agency, with high-priced veterans being released in the coming months.

Either way, the Packers haven’t found their next Lane Taylor just yet.

“We’re still in the beginning stages of putting our 90-man roster together,” Gutekunst said. “I would certainly think that through the rest of free agency and the draft that that area is something we’ll continue to look to build.”

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