Thompson suddenly scrambling at cornerback
It's safe to say cornerback now shoots near the top of general manager Ted Thompson's needs list for this year's draft.
The Green Bay Packers' deepest position on defense last season was weakened, quite a bit, after Davon House signed with Jacksonville last week and Tramon Williams signed with Cleveland on Monday.
Last season the Packers had five cornerbacks good enough to win with if they had to play regularly: Sam Shields, Williams and House on the outside, and Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde in the slot roles. That helped the Packers win when injuries hit and underscored how important cornerback play is with the growth of spread offenses in the NFL.
The prime example was the Packers' win over the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots at Lambeau Field in late November. The two were the Nos. 1 and 4 scoring offenses in the league, and the outcome was decided at cornerback.
The Patriots went two deep with the game's best cover man, Darrelle Revis, and Brandon Browner. But they were vulnerable at No. 3, where Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan split time as the nickel back. Aaron Rodgers found the advantage with his No. 3 receiver, rookie Davante Adams, and the two torched Arrington and Ryan for six completions and Adams' season-high of 121 yards in the Packers' 26-21 win.
The Packers, on the other hand, had no such issues against the great Tom Brady because of their superior talent at cornerback in their nickel and even dime personnel. But those days are, if not gone, at least in serious jeopardy.
The Packers still might go three deep, but that depends on how Hayward plays at outside cornerback after he lined up primarily in the slot in the nickel and dime his first three seasons. Hayward's draft status (second round in 2012) and demonstrated instincts suggest he should be fine outside — cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt always has insisted Hayward can play there full time if needed — but his long speed leaves reason for reservation.
Hayward's 40-yard dash time at the NFL scouting combine ranged from 4.53 seconds (the average hand-held time of his two 40s) to 4.57 seconds (his fastest electronic time), both of which are a little below average for his position. For instance, according to data from 1999 through 2014 compiled by Tony Villioti of the National Football Post, the average time for a cornerback at the combine is 4.48 seconds, based primarily on players' fastest electronic timing.
That 40 doesn't doom Hayward — Williams ran only the average time (4.48 seconds) at his Pro Day at Louisiana Tech in 2006, yet his playing speed was plenty good. But it is something to watch early if Hayward goes to training camp as the starter in Williams' place, which appears likely.
Hyde has played the nickel enough in his first two seasons to suggest he'll be fine there full time, even if Hayward replaced him on the more obvious passing downs last season. But even if both hold up well, the Packers have no obvious dime back. For now their fourth cornerback is Demetrius Goodson, the former Gonzaga basketball player and sixth-round draft pick last year who's extremely raw
Even more importantly, the Packers now are an injury away from potential disaster in their nickel, which is the personnel group they use more than all others. Last year they were three injuries away from trouble. So they're suddenly in a far more precarious place in a passing-dominated game.
The Packers also are paying for Thompson's chintzy handling of former cornerback Jumal Rolle, who last October signed from their practice squad to the Houston Texans' 53-man roster.
Rolle outplayed Goodson in training camp, but Goodson made the final 53 on potential. That's not uncommon in personnel decisions, and Goodson's concussion at the end of camp complicated matters. But what made no sense was Thompson leaving a spot open on the 53-man roster for nearly two weeks early in the season while Rolle still was on the practice squad.
On Oct. 1, Houston finally signed Rolle, and if Thompson assumed the young cornerback would stay if the Packers matched the offer, he was wrong. Rolle felt jerked around after first being cut at the end of camp and then stuck making practice-squad money while a spot was open on the 53. So he took Houston's offer and said so long.
You can bet Thompson wishes he had Rolle now. The second-year pro looks like he might have a future with Houston after playing 10 games as a backup and finishing with three interceptions and four passes defended.
It's not clear how the Packers' re-signings of Randall Cobb and Bryan Bulaga affected their offer to Williams, but either way retaining them mitigated the loss of the free-agent cornerbacks, at least as far as the draft goes. Receiver and tackle remain lower on the priority list.
The Packers liked House but obviously didn't have enough faith to pay him anywhere near the $10 million guarantee and $6.125 million average on a four-year deal that Jacksonville offered. Hard to blame them. House had good size and athleticism, and certainly had his moments. But he also was prone to injury and the occasional cavalier play for that kind of pay.
Williams was a tough call because of age. As last season went on he was beaten more often than in the past, and he turned 32 on Tuesday.
Even so, he's a springy enough athlete that I probably would have offered $5 million a year on a two-year deal, though that might not have been enough to get a deal done. We'll know for sure when the guarantees and yearly pay of his three-year, $21 million deal with Cleveland become public in the next couple of days.
And Thompson might not have been willing to go even to $5 million. If so, well, I get it. Players at that age can fall off the table in one offseason, and the GM would only be playing the odds.
But make no mistake, the Packers have been weakened defensively. And with the free-agent cornerback market dried up, Thompson can add cornerback to inside linebacker as his acute needs for this year's draft. He badly needs to hit on picks at both.
— pdougher@pressgazettemedia and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.