When the Green Bay Packers’ offense struggled in 2015, it was the defense that stepped up to help guide the team to another strong season, even if it did not end in a fifth straight division title.
A big reason for the defensive unit’s overall improvement was the play in the secondary. Just five years ago, the Packers’ pass defense ranked dead last in the NFL. Last year, led by a group of young playmakers, Green Bay rose to the sixth-best defensive backfield in the league.
Despite the relative youth of the secondary, the Packers’ unit has the potential to rank among the best in the league in 2016 by most defensive measures. Cornerbacks Sam Shields, Damarious Randall, and Quinten Rollins and safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will serve as the anchors of a talented group of playmaking defenders.
The Packers elected to go with a younger group in the secondary after allowing Tramon Williams and Davon House to depart in free agency last year. That left Shields, still only 28 years of age, as the oldest and most experienced man in the backfield. Burnett, like Shields, will be entering his seventh year in the league, but the other three core members all have racked up less than three years of experience.
Green Bay selected Randall and Rollins with its first two picks in the 2015 draft, and they both exceeded expectations during their rookie seasons. The duo combined for five interceptions (including one pick-six apiece) and 20 passes defended. Both are due to have expanded workloads this season, especially with the departure of Casey Hayward.
With a season at the professional level now under their belts and an extra offseason of work, both should improve on their impressive rookie performances. Randall will assume a full-time starting role, and should continue to see a rise in confidence and a decline in mental mistakes. Meanwhile, Rollins will build off a successful campaign in which he allowed the lowest opponent passer rating among all qualified rookies. He should also see a significant rise in playing time, giving him more opportunities to show that he warranted his second round draft selection.
Shields tied Randall for the team lead with three interceptions last season, but injuries forced him to miss four games in 2015. If he stays healthy, he remains the Packers’ number one cornerback on the roster. Playing opposite a rising star like Randall should help boost Shields’ own production. Additionally his leadership role in the backfield makes him incredibly valuable to the secondary. Expectations will be high for Green Bay’s number one corner, but Shields is capable of exceeding them.
The Packers also boast one of the best tandems of safeties in the league. Both Burnett and Clinton-Dix were ranked as top ten safeties by Pro Football Focus. Clinton-Dix led the secondary with 100 combined tackles, and avoided a sophomore slump by improving from his rookie season. There is no reason to think that Clinton-Dix takes a step back in 2016, and he should continue his ascension to one of the best defenders on Green Bay’s roster. Opposite Clinton-Dix, Burnett has been one of the most consistent Packers defenders in recent years, and should continue to be a solid performer in the defensive backfield.
This secondary group demonstrated in 2015 what they were capable of accomplishing when playing on the same field. The Packers allowed the sixth-fewest passing yards, gave up the second-fewest completions (for the fourth-lowest completion percentage), surrendered the sixth-fewest passing touchdowns, and had the ninth-most interceptions.
The only notable member that Green Bay lost from its secondary was Hayward, but the continued development of Randall and Rollins should make his absence almost negligible. Other young players, such as Chris Banjo, LaDarius Gunter, and possibly even an undrafted rookie like Kentrell Brice, could round out a secondary that could easily be a top five unit in the 2016 season.
So even though the team’s primary defensive backs are somewhat lacking in their combined experience, the Packers have a core of players in the secondary that can elevate the passing defense to an elite level in 2016.——————
Sean Blashe is a Packers fan who grew up in Bears territory and is currently a journalism and history major at Marquette University. Sean is a writer with PackersTalk.com and you can follow him on twitter at @SeanBlashe .