Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy had to be mortified when they saw the NFL Pro Bowl teams last week.
It wasn’t just that their Green Bay Packers were shut out. They can rightfully say they should have had at least one player on the list, left tackle David Bakhtiari.
But it had to be galling for the Packers' general manager and coach, as well as everyone on their staffs, to see two names in the AFC defense’s secondary: Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde.
What would Thompson and McCarthy give to have those two back?
Taken together, Hayward and Hyde are among the Packers’ biggest personnel failures of the past several years. The team’s secondary has been a big problem the last two seasons because of injuries and poor play, and it has turned out that many of those issues were self-inflicted because the Packers let two good players walk.
SILVERSTEIN: Salary-cap growth eases Packers' free-agency risk
It’s safe to say if the two still were with the Packers, Hayward would be their best cornerback and Hyde their top safety. So how did Thompson and McCarthy blow the call so badly not just once, but twice?
To begin with, there’s plenty of responsibility to go around. The mistake with Hayward falls mostly on Thompson, whereas Hyde is on the coaching staff.
To be sure, it’s easy after the fact to distinguish good personnel decisions from bad. Doing so in real time is another matter.
So full disclosure: When the Packers let Hayward leave in free agency in 2016, I considered it the right move. They already had a true No. 1 (Sam Shields) and the promising cornerbacks Thompson had drafted with his first two picks in 2015: Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
My mistake was not fully appreciating what defense is all about in today’s NFL. Of course it’s a game of pass rushers, but it’s almost equally about cover men as well. There’s no such thing as having enough decent cornerbacks in a league where injuries and fluctuating performances abound.
Whether Thompson made the same mistake or simply misevaluated Hayward is unclear. But for a GM who emphasizes drafting, developing and retaining his best players more than anyone else in the league, Thompson just can’t afford a mistake this big.
Just last week former Packers safety Matt Bowen of ESPN.com, an ardent watcher of NFL game video, picked the best two defensive backs in each of 20 categories. Hayward and Hyde each won a category, whereas no Packers players made the list.
Bowen rated Hayward as the “best overall cover corner” – last year’s winner was Denver’s Aqib Talib – and No. 2 for best footwork behind Patrick Peterson.
“Clinical stuff here, really,” Bowen wrote of Hayward. “If you want to learn how the top pros match up in coverage, go study Hayward. … This cat is so smooth, and I love how he finishes and competes.”
So why did Thompson let Hayward walk two years ago?
To be fair, Hayward never matched his strong 2012 rookie season (six interceptions) in his final three years with the Packers. A recurring hamstring injury wiped out his 2013, and in ’14 and ’15 combined he had three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 32 games. He did not stand out like he is now.
With Shields back and Randall and Rollins coming off promising rookie years, Thompson saw Hayward as expendable. But the lesson here is three cornerbacks aren’t nearly enough.
Even then Thompson had to know that LaDarius Gunter, the No. 4 at the time, wasn’t fast and athletic enough no matter how hard he battled. After letting Hayward leave for an average of $5.1 million a year, Thompson didn’t select a cornerback in the ’16 draft, and of course, he didn’t sign one in free agency, either.
So his secondary was vulnerable, and disaster struck. Shields’ career ended when he suffered a concussion in the first game in ’15, and because of other injuries and uneven play, the Packers’ secondary hasn’t recovered since.
I don’t think anyone saw Hayward’s back-to-back Pro Bowls coming when the Chargers signed him to a three-year, $15.3 million contract in March 2016. But his play this season (four interceptions, 20 passed defended) has proved his Pro Bowl in ‘16 (seven and 20) was no fluke.
This week I contacted a scout with a team that played the Chargers and asked what he thought of Hayward based on game video and then seeing him in person.
“(Packers) should never have let him walk,” he said. “Really good player.”
The scout then shared his write-up on Hayward and described a cornerback who fits any system.
“Nice reactions,” he wrote. “… Physical off the line. Has a feel for how to avoid picks or rub routes. … No tightness in the way he moves. … Doesn’t take long to get going. Plays with lateral quickness and agility. Does a nice job defending the inside routes. … Disciplined player in zone (coverage). Will get to his area, set up and work to the ball. … Not a great tackler.”
The Packers sure could use him as a No. 1 cornerback now.
As for Hyde, he signed a five-year deal with Buffalo last offseason that averages $6.1 million a year.
He played mostly slot corner in his four years with the Packers, but he wasn’t worth that kind of money for that role. For all his instincts, his lack of pure speed (4.56 40) was a limitation in coverage. Don’t forget, Hyde was part of a secondary that Atlanta exposed in the NFC Championship game last year. He was the nickel cornerback for most of the first half when Atlanta scorched the Packers’ secondary for 271 passing yards and 24 points.
But as we now know, defensive coordinator Dom Capers played Hyde out of position for most of his time in Green Bay. Hyde should have been a full-time safety all along, and slot corner only in a pinch. He’s no Earl Thomas or Harrison Smith on the back end, but he has proved to be better than the Packers’ Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who has regressed after going to the Pro Bowl last season.
Bowen rated Hyde as the NFL’s “best ball hawk at safety,” with Thomas ranked second. Hyde’s five interceptions in 2017 ties him for third among all safeties.
“I really like what Hyde has shown this season from the deep half and middle-of-the-field alignments in Buffalo's defense,” Bowen wrote. “… He plays with body control, range and vision, and he has the ability to read through the quarterback to break on the ball. That’s why Hyde plays top-down and is consistently in the proper position to finish.”
What Thompson and McCarthy wouldn’t do to have had Hyde and Hayward this year. That one got away could happen to anybody. But both? That’s an organizational failure all around.