GREEN BAY - When the Green Bay Packers let cornerback Casey Hayward walk in free agency in 2016, it looked like the right call.
Hayward had played some good football with the Packers but was coming off an undistinguished fourth season and had his share of injury issues along the way.
So why pay him $5 million a year when Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins just had promising rookie seasons?
Count me among those who defended the move. Well, I was wrong, and not just because Hayward has gone to back-to-back Pro Bowls with the San Diego Chargers. Here’s why: I failed to appreciate just how important cornerback depth is in the NFL, where the rules favor the passing game and the best quarterbacks are beating pass rushers by getting the ball out fast.
You can’t play good defense in today’s NFL if you can’t cover well, and you can’t cover well over the course of a long season with only three capable cornerbacks. Or even four. Not with the injury attrition that’s a given in this league.
If there’s any lesson from what’s happened to the Packers since letting Hayward walk, it’s that there’s no such thing as having too many decent cornerbacks. If you can accumulate a glut of talent at any position in this league, cornerback is the place to do it.
With that in mind, it’s been enlightening to watch Brian Gutekunst’s first season as the Packers’ general manager. If he’s done nothing else, he’s gone the extra mile to build his cornerbacks corps.
In Week 2, Gutekunst claimed one cornerback (Deante Burton) off waivers for the 53-man roster and signed another (Will Redmond) to the practice squad. Both had traits that had to intrigue Gutekunst – Burton was a big cover man (6-2, 230) who’d won a spot on Atlanta’s 53-man roster in Week 1; Redmond was a former high third-round draft pick (No. 68 overall in 2016) who’d been injured for most of his first two years.
Two weeks later, Burton is gone (to make room for Aaron Jones) while Redmond remains. But either way, Gutekunst cleared roster and practice-squad space for a first-hand look even though he’d used his first two draft picks (Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson) and free agency (Tramon Williams) to build up the cornerback position in the offseason.
Then this week Gutekunst signed Bashaud Breeland to replace Davon House (shoulder), who landed on injured reserve. If Ted Thompson were still GM, he’d have just elevated Redmond from the practice squad. But Gutekunst went outside the organization for an experienced 26-year old with a pedigree and an injury red flag. Breeland was coveted enough last March to sign a three-year, $24 million contract with Carolina only to have the deal voided because of an offseason foot injury (golf cart accident) that was infected after a skin graft.
Breeland, in fact, could end being an upgrade from House, though the injury risk is real. That’s why he was available three weeks into the season and signed to a minimum deal (a $90,000 bonus and $790,000 salary, according to ESPN.com).
Still, his signing was all about accruing talent at that position. Gutekunst is assuming he’ll need his No. 5 cornerback this season, maybe even a lot. He’d already needed House because of Kevin King’s shaky health (shoulder, groin).
And while today’s spread passing games place a premium on cornerback play, the Packers especially need quality there because they’ll probably go only as far as their quarterback and cornerbacks take them.
Like the last couple seasons, the Packers’ defense to start 2018 has more than its share of holes. Its pass rush, predictably, scares no one. And safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice so far have been a liability in both coverage and tackling.
But the Packers have talent, and perhaps depth, at one key position: cornerback. King, Williams, Alexander, Jackson and Breeland are this team’s strength on that side of the ball.
The youth – King is in his second season, Alexander and Jackson rookies – means there are plenty of rough moments ahead. But they’ve also shown ability, and if the Packers are to accomplish big things this season they’ll need this crew to grow fast.
Gutekunst didn’t like any pass rushers high in this year’s’ draft. He went with cornerbacks instead. So be it. He was desperate at both positions, and while nothing beats having a good pass rush, coverage can get a defense off the field sometimes, too.
The question is, are these young guys ready to come through?
Packers beat writers Tom Silverstein and Jim Owczarski discuss Aaron Rodgers' return to the practice and the health of the offensive line. Packers News