Despite solid enough numbers in run defense and rushing the passer, the Green Bay defense in 2016 will likely be remembered as a failure.
Green Bay’s improbable run to the cusp of a Super Bowl berth ended in Atlanta with flashbacks to the team’s midseason struggles, when injuries besieged the secondary and a barrage of big plays followed.
The team’s front seven actually graded out a top-10 unit, which would have seemed insane if before the season a time-traveler told you that Clay Matthews missed a month of action and finished with just 5 sacks, and that a scarily inexperienced group at inside linebacker would also have its share of injury adversity as well.
On the defensive back end, Morgan Burnett contributed wherever the Pack lined him up, including as a linebacker in the team’s time packages. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, meanwhile, led the unit with five interceptions and earned a trip to wherever it is they play the Pro Bowl these days.
Despite these positives, and others — like Nick Perry asserting for the first time in his career the prowess that led to his first-round selection, and another impressive season from Mike Daniels — the Packers had one glaring weakness: The big play.
Other teams had a higher volume of injuries, sure, but Green Bay’s ruthlessly plagued the cornerback position. Sam Shields missed virtually the entire season, and likely played his last snap in the NFL, while second-year hopefuls Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins regressed mightily and struggled to stay healthy throughout. LaDarious Gunter was far and away the team’s most consistent full-time corner, but even his season was a highlight tape of few highs and plenty of lows.
In virtually every statistical passing category on defense, from total yards to average yards per play to plays over 20- and 40-yards, opposing completion percentage and opposing touchdown percentage on throws, the Packers were near the bottom (or dead last) in the league.
Though the Packers finished sixth in the NFL in sacks (with 40) and tied for fourth in interceptions (with 17), they couldn’t stop the big play.
A return to mediocrity in 2017 isn’t out of the cards, but for the corner position to once again become a strength like it was during the days of Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, then a couple of things have to happen. For starters, Randall and Rollins need to stay healthy and re-claim the swagger that went along with their promising-if-unspectacular rookie seasons.
Think, or rather hope, a projection similar to Davante Adams. His rookie season showed promise, his sophomore season was a relative disaster plagued by injuries and consistent undependability, and his third season bordered on breakout.
If, and understandably it’s a big if, Randall and Rollins can make a similar jump, which more than anything requires they stay healthy, then the cornerback position won’t be pitiful as it was a season ago.
But looking at the roster, and knowing opposing offenses’ proclivity for airing it deep against the Packer secondary, a step forward in 2017 likely requires some new blood. Ted Thompson could break from his normal mold and dip into free agency. More than likely he targets a cornerback in the draft.
To that end, the Packers stumbled into a great crop of corners. The depth of the position just about ensures a quality corner will be waiting at pick No. 29, and there’s even reason to hope for an impact player in round two.
The following is a group of players to familiarize yourself with as we move closer to April:
I’ll start by saying that as of now, it seems unlikely that Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore, Washington’s Sidney Jones and Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey are still on the board when Green Bay picks. Another pair of names touted as definite first-rounders suited up for the Gators — Jalen “Teez” Tabor, an athletic ballhawk and Quincy Wilson, a full-framed boundary corner who excels in press coverage.
What’s more likely for Green Bay, as I see it now, are either LSU’s Tre’Davious White or Ohio State’s Gareon Conley. White plays inside and out and Green Bay covets versatility in their defensive backfield. He’s also regarded as one of the best pure cover corners in the draft. He’s not the most physical corner, and his frame is lighter than many of the previously mentioned, but he adds extra value as a kick returner.
As for Conley, he’s not the same athlete as his teammate, Lattimore, but he has the size (6-0, 195), and is rarely out of position. He’s also scheme versatile and has lots of upside. By most accounts he’s first-round stock.
With the abundance of edge rushers and potential first-round quarterbacks, one of these players should be there at pick 29. If Thompson opts to add another piece to his front seven, the uncommon depth at corner means we could be in for a quality Day 2 selection. Names I’d keep an eye on: Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley, Tennessee’s Cam Sutton, UCLA’s Fabian Moreau. There are others out there like Rasul Douglas and Chidobe Awuzie, but they don’t appear to be as good of fits for Green Bay’s predominantly man-press scheme.
The beauty of this time of year is the mystery. Much will change from now until April in terms of how these players are valued. But what’s certain is the Packers picked a good year to be in need of drafting a corner. It’s not every year that as many as seven guys are first-round talents.
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