Packers commit to youth in secondary

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall (23) celebrates a play in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys.

In a way, Casey Hayward prophesied his own departure from the Green Bay Packers in the days after the team’s 26-20 overtime playoff loss in Arizona.

The 26-year-old cornerback, facing free agency for the first time in his four-year NFL career, didn't deny how the horde of young players the Packers returning at his position might impact his future with the organization that drafted him in the second round in 2012.

“You just never know,” Hayward said Jan. 18. “They’ve got some young guys here. Pretty sure they want these young guys to play regardless of if I’m here or not.”

Hayward won't be back in Green Bay next season, not after he officially signed a three-year, $15.3 million contract with the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. It’s uncertain how much the Packers spoke with Hayward and his agent over the last week, but talks had been minimal leading up to the start of free agency.

It probably was a foregone conclusion that Hayward’s fourth season with the Packers would be his last once first-round pick Damarious Randall showed he could play on an island and second-rounder Quinten Rollins displayed enough physicality and ball-hawking ability to play anywhere in the secondary.

The price of cornerbacks has skyrocketed since the Packers agreed to a four-year, $39 million contract with Sam Shields in March 2014. That was further evidenced when general manager Ted Thompson allowed Tramon Williams (three years, $21 million) and Davon House (four years, $24.5 million) to walk last offseason. Both cornerbacks received $10 million in guarantees elsewhere.

Hayward fell short of that payout because he didn’t have Williams’ Pro Bowl pedigree on the perimeter or House’s prodigious 6-foot-1 size. There also were a pair of lower-body injuries over the past two seasons that likely raised red flags.

A finalist for defensive rookie of the year in 2012, Hayward played in only three regular-season games the following season due to a recurring hamstring injury. He then sat out of the offseason program last summer after undergoing surgery to have a screw inserted to help heal a stress fracture.

Hayward didn't miss a game the past two seasons, but his playmaking production steadily decreased. He had three interceptions in 16 games in 2014 before being shut out on turnovers this past season, though he led all Packers cornerbacks with 65 tackles.

Still, Hayward remains a steady presence in the secondary and an instinctive defender. He likely will replace veteran Patrick Robinson as the Chargers’ nickel cornerback next season, but also could get a chance to compete for a perimeter job. That's an opportunity he wouldn't have been afforded in Green Bay.

Realistically, Thompson couldn’t bring Hayward back given what the market would pay for a versatile cornerback who could play outside and in the slot. Instead, he’ll devote the rest of his 2016 cap space (roughly $15 million)  to fortifying leaks elsewhere and count on his young core to absorb Hayward's role as he did when Williams left.

Hayward’s deal will be enough to ensure Thompson gains another coveted compensatory pick next year. He’ll get even more bang for his buck when those extra selections are eligible to be traded in 2017.

As for 2016, the Packers are as strong as they’ve ever been in the secondary under Thompson. The investment in Shields has paid dividends for Green Bay. When healthy, the 5-foot-11, 184-pound cornerback possesses world-class speed and developing coverage ability to match any receiver.

But Packers are going to be really young. Barring injury or a drastic offseason development, the preferred starters in their dime package will average 25.2 years of age. Whatever they might lack in experience, the unit should be able to make up for in athleticism.

Along with Randall's and Rollins’ high ceilings, the Packers have confidence in backup safety and slot defender Micah Hyde as a dime cornerback. They also have three big cornerbacks in LaDarius Gunter, Demetri Goodson and Rob Daniel, who was promoted off the practice squad at the end of last season.

Hayward played an important role in the secondary’s transition from veterans Charles Woodson and Williams to a slew of rookies and youngsters. Rookie seasons can sometimes be deceiving, but Randall and Rollins gave the Packers plenty to salivate over in Year 1.

The two cornerbacks combined for 89 tackles, 20 passes defensed and five interceptions with two returned for touchdowns for a defense that finished last season sixth against the pass. With Hayward moving on, however, it’s now up to the young cornerbacks to prove the organization’s intuition correct.

That starts with Randall and Rollins. and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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