In the dead of the upcoming offseason, let’s debate the value of NFL Combine scores and metrics in general. For now, let me just state my premise that there’s a lower limit under which NFL success is very unlikely, as well as an upper mark under which success is almost assured.
LaDarius Gunter was invited to the 2015 NFL Combine, which means he was expected to be selected in that year’s draft. Most of his scores were below average, but his 40-yard dash time of 4.69 seconds was off-the-charts slow. He was 31st out of the 32 cornerbacks tested. There went his possibilities of being drafted.
The Green Bay Packers quickly signed him as a free agent, however. After playing sparingly in 2015, in 2016 he played the most snaps at cornerback, by far, for the Packers’ injury-riddled team. Given the performances of Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, he was a godsend.
Gunter’s lack of speed was not laid bare until the Cowboys’ divisional round game. Gunter was assigned to guard the fast and talented Dez Bryant for much of the game. The speed differential resulted in Bryant consistently getting just free enough to haul in nine catches for 132 yards. By the fourth quarter, every other pass by Dak Prescott was being thrown in Gunter’s vicinity, but he and the team survived.
Against the Falcons in the NFC Championship, Gunter was assigned to Julio Jones, the league’s best and one of its fastest receivers. This time around, Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards. On the game’s biggest play, The Falcons expertly exploited the mismatch. Jones lined up left, then veered right on a crossing route. Gunter jammed him at the line and was only a half-step behind initially, but lost ground during the straight-line sprint diagonally across the field after the catch. Gunter’s diving tackle attempt failed to bring Jones down. The final 30 yards of the 73-yard play can be chalked up to Randall, who was in position to make the tackle, but was easily evaded.
That play epitomized the shortcomings of Green Bay’s best cornerback on the season.
Gunter’s Prospects Moving Forward
One could argue that defensive coordinator Dom Capers hung Gunter out to dry in these two playoff games. Maybe his defensive scheme was poorly conceived. On the other hand, who else was there to call upon? After reviewing all the throws to Jones, I sympathize with Gunter. There was not enough double coverage on Jones, but great players do tend to make great plays, especially when a lot is on the line. The film study also tells me that Gunter has nothing to be ashamed of. He was always close and missed one interception in the end zone by a hair. I know “close” doesn’t win ball games, but it’s a fair point to make for evaluation purposes.
I don’t believe Gunter’s lack of speed is a fatal problem, but it is a serious limitation that the team must recognize and try to adjust to. In a similar situation, the Packers, and later the Raiders, successfully worked around Charles Woodson’s increasing lack of speed over the last five years of his illustrious career. Micah Hyde’s role has also been carved out to account for his lack of speed (4.56).
Gunter proved during the regular season that he can compete with most of the league’s receivers. Had Sam Shields been healthy, I suspect Gunter would not have been put into such precarious positions as he found himself in the playoffs.
What the Packers need on the 2017 roster is another (healthy) Sam Shields. Such a player would essentially result in Green Bay fielding two quality cornerbacks, as Gunter could be assigned to cover the less speedy of the opponent’s top two receivers. It’s a limitation that Capers needs to acknowledge and play around. Better yet, it would thrust Randall and Rollins into backup roles – until or unless they can earn their way back to the starting lineup.
The Packers should NOT wait for the draft (April 27-29) to fill this need. They don’t need the uncertainly and don’t have the time to develop a collegian. Ted Thompson missed the mark in appraising talent in 2015. Though it goes against his preferences, Thompson needs to find and sign the best speedy and proven cornerback available on the upcoming free agent market – such contacts can be negotiated starting March 7, and free agency itself opens on March 9.
The fact that a starting job on a perennial playoff team is being offered should make Green Bay attractive to a free agent, as it was for tight end Jared Cook.
The team’s finances are in decent shape. As usual the Packers have some cash in reserve. This would be money very well spent.