The transformation of the Green Bay Packers secondary from the 2014 season to this season fully embodies what Ted Thompson is all about as a general manager and how he chooses to run the team.
One of the strengths of Green Bay’s defense last season was its ability to run four cornerbacks out at a time who had the ability to plaster their man in coverage. In today’s NFL where the majority are using the 11-formation (3 WR, 1 TE) as its base offense that is a huge luxury to have, especially if injuries strike. If you can’t cover in this league it’s hard to play defense.
Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Davon House, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde were as deep a group as there was in the NFL last season. They all brought different skill sets to the table. Shields contributed his amazing speed and overall athleticism, Williams brought smarts and veteran savvy, House excelled at press coverage, Hayward was most comfortable in zone coverage and playing the ball and Hyde brought great physicality. This group allowed defensive coordinator Dom Capers to commit more numbers to help stop the run and for his exotic blitzes.
However, Williams and House were both free agents after last season, and as always Thompson has a price for everyone one of his players that he won’t exceed. House signed a four-year, $24 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Williams signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Cleveland Browns. While they’re both good corners, they were also overpaid. The Packers had to afford both Bryan Bulaga and Randall Cobb while maintaining salary cap flexibility, so they had to make some cuts somewhere.
Some general managers would get desperate if they lost two of their top cornerbacks. Of course, Thompson just did what he always does — not worry about it and replenish through the draft. He drafted cornerback Damarious Randall in the first round and Quinten Rollins in the second round. Both came with questions, as Randall was a safety at Arizona State, and Rollins only played collegiate football for one season at Miami (OH.) after four seasons on the basketball court.
You have to take this with a grain of salt because there has only been one preseason game played, but so far the secondary looks like it could be at least as good as last year and maybe better. Randall missed the game because of a groin injury, but by most accounts he has looked pretty good from the people who watch practice everyday.
Rollins looked like an absolute stud against the New England Patriots. Pro Football Focus gave him a +2.7 grade overall and a +2.5 coverage grade. Rollins was targeted 10 times by the Patriots and only had five completions for 26 yards against him. He looked amazingly adept at being able to get his head around and locate the football, which is something that some corners never figure out and he had it after only playing the position for one year. He was able to high-point two balls perfectly for what should have been two interceptions. It was an anomaly that Rollins dropped those two passes, since he intercepted seven passes during his senior season at Miami (OH.) and displayed superb ball skills.
Another rookie cornerback, undrafted free agent LaDarius Gunter, has turned heads throughout camp and did nothing to lessen the hype in New England. Gunter had a big interception of Jimmy Garoppolo when he showed his physicality by ripping the ball away from New England wide receiver Josh Boyce. PFF gave Gunter a 3.2 overall rating and a 2.0 pass coverage rating.
You have to put these performances into perspective somewhat, because of the level of competition and the lack of complexity in offensive schemes in the preseason. However, you know talent when you see it. It looks like Rollins can challenge for playing time and contribute right away, and Gunter looks to have a good chance of making the team.
After losing both Williams and House it was hard to imagine that the Packers would be in as a good of a position at cornerback as they are right now.