If there is one aspect of the Green Bay Packers for which there was a master plan — a long-term strategy — it was to send out a top-notch set of defensive backs onto the field. While the results are not yet fully in, that plan seems to be crumbling before our eyes.
Until 2014, the Packers had seldom used high draft selections to acquire defensive backs. Whether lucky or smart, they had fortunate results. The mainstays of the secondary for most of the last 10 years have been two undrafted players, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. In 2010, they added Morgan Burnett, an early third-round pick. Their fifth-round pick in 2013, Micah Hyde, despite lacking athleticism, has also proved to be dependable.
These four players have given the Packers years of quality play. Few would disagree with the team’s decision to part ways with Williams after a decent season in 2014. He was too slow to begin with (4.57 40-yard dash) and at age 31 he was becoming slower.
Sam Shields was a diamond in the rough. Unfortunately, he is injury prone, and whenever he misses games, the Packers pass defense drops down several notches. Due to his susceptibility to concussions, Shields does not appear to have a future in pro football. The Packers have yet to find a speedster who can step into Shields’ shoes – with his 4.30 speed, he is (or was) one of the fastest players in the league.
Morgan Burnett has been solid in his seven years with the team and he’s still only 27. He’s far and away the most reliable tackler among Packers’ defensive backs and he comes up with enough big plays.
In 2014, the Packers finally committed a high draft choice to acquire a safety. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was chosen 21st overall in that year’s draft. Clinton-Dix, reputed to be a strong tackler, started his rookie year and recorded 90 or more tackles in each of his first two seasons. His third year, however, has been disappointing. Through nine games he has only 42 tackles, one-half sack, two interceptions, and three passes defended. He has repeatedly been beaten in coverage. Go figure this one: against the Titans, he was offsides on the other side of the field when an onside kick was attempted. Clinton-Dix has stepped back in his third year in the pros.
Ted Thompson totally committed to his defensive backfield plan in 2015. The Packers let Davon House and Tramon Williams sign elsewhere as free agents and used their two top draft selections on cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
Both House, with the Jaguars, and Williams, with the Browns, got nice, but not extravagant contracts.
That went a step further this past offseason, when Thompson let Casey Hayward sign with the Chargers as a free agent. Again, it wasn’t an extravagant contract.
In 2015 House had four interceptions and was third in the league with 23 passes defended (a Jaguars’ record). His numbers have tailed off in 2015, however.
Thompson flat out let one get away in Hayward. He’s currently tied for the league lead in interceptions (5) and is tied for third in passes defended (13). The top Packers in these categories are Clinton-Dix (2 interceptions) and Burnett and LaDarius Gunter (5 passes defended).
Damarious Randall has missed five games this year. In his four appearances, he has only 15 tackles, one interception and three passes defended. In weeks two and three, he was rated as having among the worst performances of any DB in the league by Pro Football Focus.
Quinten Rollins has missed three games. His 13 tackles, no interceptions, no sacks, and three passes defended, however, are less than mediocre.
There should be no dispute that, even taking injuries into account, the trio of Clinton-Dix, Randall, and Rollins have all taken a giant step backwards this year. The verdict isn’t in yet on their career prospects, but the early returns aren’t promising.
The Packers have a number of young, promising reserve defensive backs on the roster. Demetri Goodson is in his third year, LaDarius Gunter is in his second and Kentrell Brice, Josh Hawkins, and Marwin Evans are rookies. Goodson was drafted in the 6th round, while the other four all went undrafted. The four undrafted players have all shown flashes of talent, but they have also been prone to making huge mistakes. On the positive side, three out of the four had great 40-yard dash times at their pro day events: Brice was timed at 4.38, Hawkins at 4.39, and Evans at 4.40. Unlike Shields, though, these guys also have football-type bodies and all-around athleticism.
Gunter’s time at the 2015 NFL combine was 4.69, 30th of 31 cornerbacks. While that time is unbelievably slow, Gunter looks quick, if not fast, on the field. Gunter’s strategy isn’t based on speed, though. He’s the most physical of the Packers’ cornerbacks and works to jam receivers at the line.
Given the Packers’ propensity for keeping high draft choices as starters regardless of performance, I don’t expect any of the reserves to get much action except when the starters are injured.
Whenever high draft picks underperform, the spotlight is directed to the team’s general manager. What I would like to ask Ted Thompson is how much importance he puts on speed when he rates defensive backs coming out of college. The 40-yard dash times of Randall, Rollins, and Clinton-Dix are 4.46, 4.57, and 4.58 respectively. I would rate the speed of Rollins and Clinton-Dix as marginal for any DB, and unacceptable for a high draft choice. Nor has any of the three shown himself to be either a fearsome or sure tackler, thus far.
If Randall, Rollins and Clinton-Dix prove to be no better than average defensive backs, then the team will have wasted three of their four first and second-round draft picks in 2014 and 2015 – and that fourth pick was Davante Adams.
Right now the man on the hot seat in Green Bay is Mike McCarthy, but unless the defensive backfield play picks up in a hurry, Ted Thompson — the one who built that backfield — ought to be joining him.