For most of last season, LaDarius Gunter was the Green Bay Packers’ best cornerback.
The last time they took the field, in the NFC championship game at Atlanta, the Packers put him on the great Julio Jones.
Six months later, Gunter is in a major battle just to win a spot on the Packers’ 53-man roster.
That has to be what general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy were looking for from their offseason. Their secondary fell apart in 2016 (injuries, poor play), and if it isn’t better this season, they won’t have much chance to win the Super Bowl.
Joe Whitt, the Packers’ cornerbacks coach, overstated it only a little this week when he said: “I’ve mentioned many times, if the quarterback and cornerbacks play well, we’ll win. OK? We have a chance to win Super Bowls if those two groups play well.”
That the Packers have four cornerbacks ahead of Gunter suggests improvement, though at this point we don’t know if it's a little or a lot.
Thompson signed Davon House to be a starter, and the seventh-year pro has been since the first day of camp. The surprise so far is Quinten Rollins, who had offseason surgery on a core injury. So far he has outplayed Damarious Randall for the “star” (i.e., slot) spot in the nickel defense and, according to Whitt, is off to the best start of the group.
And a week into camp it’s easy to see why Thompson liked second-round pick Kevin King. Though Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson took him to school in a two-minute drill Thursday night, King looks as athletic as advertised to go with his uncommon height (6-3) for the position. Coordinator Dom Capers isn’t eager to start rookies, but I don’t see how he can keep King's talent out of the starting nickel.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to like about Gunter. He has good length (6-1 and 31½-inch arms). He’s tough, has a feel for the game and competes as hard as anyone. He’s still very much in the running for a roster spot, and I probably wouldn’t bet against him.
But after leading the Packers’ cornerbacks in snaps (861) last season, he ranks no better than fifth on the depth chart for a reason. His speed always will be a big limitation — the average cornerback at the NFL scouting combine going back to 1999 ran the 40 in 4.50 seconds, or almost a full two-tenths of a second faster than Gunter.
We’ve seen that issue already in camp.
Randall and Gunter had the shakiest starts of camp among the top five, Gunter because he gave up two deep balls on Day 1. Both were demoted after that first day, and though they’ve played better recently, a play in team drills Thursday night illustrated the difference between them.
On a well-thrown deep ball to Geronimo Allison, Randall (4.46 40) still was able to pop the ball loose at the last instant because he was on Allison’s hip the entire route. Gunter always will be vulnerable deep no matter how hard he battles.
The Packers will keep at least five cornerbacks, maybe six. Based on playing rotations a week into training camp, Gunter’s strongest challengers for that final spot or two are second-year pro Josh Hawkins and undrafted rookie Donatello Brown.
Where Gunter is all intangibles, Hawkins is all upside (4.39 40, 40½-inch vertical). A blown coverage on a 73-yard touchdown by Detroit’s Marvin Jones in Week 3 led to his benching for most of the season, and he struggled when he had to play thereafter. He has shown better command so far in camp and has been lining up with Gunter and Randall in the No. 2 nickel.
Brown has been among the Packers’ best undrafted rookies. He’s a small-school guy (Division II Valdosta State) with decent size (5-11½, 190) and adequate speed (4.50 40). He’s in the No. 3 defense but is getting more than his share of snaps in the mixing and matching of personnel in practice. He could start moving up the ladder by making a play or two on Family Night or in next week’s preseason opener against Philadelphia.
The battle is on and could reveal plenty about the state of the Packers' secondary for 2017. They went into camp last year thinking cornerback would be a strength, and it wound up a liability. Maybe they'll get the opposite this time around.
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