BOCA RATON, Fla. - It wasn’t that long ago the Green Bay Packers went into their regular-season opener against the San Francisco in 2012 with Jarrett Bush as a starting outside cornerback.
What once could be considered a position of weakness has since become one of the defense’s biggest strengths in recent years to the point that Packers general manager Ted Thompson has allowed three starting-caliber cornerbacks — Davon House, Tramon Williams and now Casey Hayward — to all depart.
All three agreed to long-term contracts in the past two seasons that included a combined $26.8 million in guaranteed money. A purge like that may cause problems for some NFL teams in a league where you can’t have enough defensive backs, but the Packers have managed to survive.
Really, Green Bay’s future in the secondary is brighter than ever.
No disrespect to Bush — a company man who was a special-team stalwart throughout his nine NFL seasons — but the quality of competition at cornerback has intensified in Green Bay. The team signed Sam Shields to a four-year extension in 2014 and then took Arizona State’s Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins of Miami (Ohio) in back-to-back rounds of last year’s NFL draft.
So it should come as no surprise the Packers have gradually improved since finishing last in passing defense in 2011. Despite House and Williams' exits, the Packers ranked sixth in passing defense this past season, its sixth-best finish over the past 25 years.
For whatever reason, the NFL has yet to pick up on Joe Whitt's work in his seven seasons as the primary cornerbacks coach. He molded Randall and Rollins to rookie starters, while House blossomed in his first season in Jacksonville. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound cornerback finished with 60 tackles, four interceptions and the third-most passes defensed (27) in the NFL last season.
House only started 14 games in his four seasons for Green Bay mostly due to injury. There’s no telling what might have happened if he hadn’t suffered a shoulder subluxation in the 2012 preseason that then caused him to miss the first six games of the regular season. At the time of the injury, it appeared he was the favorite to land the starting job vacated by Charles Woodson with his switch to safety.
Shields emerged as an outside option in House’s absence and the rest was history. The Packers showed little interest in re-signing House in free agency, but the Jaguars had no problem in giving him a four-year, $24.5 million deal to be the team’s starting perimeter cornerback.
Coincidentally, the Packers received the same fourth-round compensatory pick (131st overall) for losing House in free agency that they originally used to draft him in 2011.
“He’s a guy that we talked about who has the length,” said Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley. “He had over 20 PBUs — we haven’t had a guy who’s done that for years. I think those type of traits — has good ball awareness, good ball skills and the ability to make plays. We felt so confident that we traveled with him as far as if we faced a team with a good receiver.”
Williams, who turned 33 last week, didn't make a big impact in his first season of a three-year, $21 million contract he signed with Cleveland last year. He had only 10 passes defensed and one interception in 15 starts, his lowest marks in both categories since his first season with the Packers in 2007. With his second season fully guaranteed, Williams will be back with the Browns next season.
The Packers then allowed Hayward to walk this offseason despite him playing the most defensive snaps (1,042) of any Green Bay cornerback this past season. Last week, he agreed to a three-year, $15.3 million contract with San Diego where he’ll get a chance to compete for a starting role on the perimeter.
“Without a doubt he could play out there,” said San Diego coach Mike McCoy. “We’ll evaluate it in our scheme as time goes along from the offseason program throughout training camp to kind of see where he best fits, different packages (but) he’ll play both inside and outside.”
Randall finished last season working opposite of Shields on the boundary. With how much the Packers value consistency, it’s likely they’ll keep him there and turn to Rollins and Micah Hyde to occupy the slot in the nickel and dime sub-packages, important roles in Dom Capers’ defense.
For losing Hayward, the Packers likely will pick up a fifth-round compensatory pick next offseason should Thompson not sign any unrestricted free agents to lucrative deals in the next two months.
And so the process begins again for the Packers' secondary.
2016 – Casey Hayward (San Diego, three years, $15.3 million)
2015 – Davon House (Jacksonville, four years, $24.5 million), Tramon Williams (Cleveland, three years, $21 million)
2014 – Sam Shields (Green Bay, four years, $39 million)