Trivia time: which two Green Bay Packers’ players were on the field for the most plays in 2016? The winner is Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, with 1,148 — 1,028 defensive and 120 special teams snaps. He should be an essential part of the Packers’ defense for many years. In second place with 1,047, was Micah Hyde — 817 defensive and 230 special teams snaps. He’s gone.
Of all of the considerable moves the Packers have made during their unusually busy offseason, not re-signing such an important cog in the defense has been a real head-scratcher for me. Though not viewed as a starter, he was in on 79 percent of the defensive snaps on the season.
Hyde was the Packers’ nickelback, slot back, slot cornerback – take your choice. We talk of the team’s defensive scheme as a 3-4, or if you count the defensive backs a 3-4-4. But over the last five years or so, up to three-fourths of the time, it’s a 2-4-5 – two linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs. Hyde was actually on the field a whole lot, so his absence will be felt – unless the Packers can adequately replace him.
Most often a nickelback is listed as a cornerback, though there’s nothing saying he can’t be a safety. It’s described as one of the most challenging assignments. The heart of the position is guarding an inside receiver as opposed to a wide receiver. This can be a slot receiver (think Randall Cobb), a wide receiver in a three-receiver set, or perhaps a tight end. Depending on the play run by the offense, the nickelback might also be called upon to stop a rusher, fend off blockers or blitz the quarterback. A very useful trait for a nickelback is the ability to hold up and disrupt a receiver at the line of scrimmage. Nickelback is a hybrid position requiring great versatility.
With Hyde going to the Bills at $6 million a year for five years, do the Packers have such a player? We’ll get to that.
The player who is considered the quintessential NFL nickelback is Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu. He’s been a safety for the Cardinals since 2013. Mathieu is 5’9” and 186 pounds – which is undoubtedly a big reason why he has only played in more than 13 games once in four seasons.
In the 50 games in which he’s played, however, he’s had 213 tackles, three sacks, nine interceptions and 34 passes defended. In his best year — 2015 — he played in 14 games and was named first-team All Pro and selected to the Pro Bowl. His fellow players named him No. 28 on the NFL top 100 players list of 2016 – even though he missed six games with a shoulder injury.
Mathieu, AKA Honey Badger, has excelled despite being way too small for the role.
Closer to home, a better model would be Charles Woodson, who was mostly what they called a slot back for his last two years in Green Bay and his final three years in Oakland, when age had slowed him down too much to be an effective outside cornerback. At 6’1” and 210, Woodson has the dimensions I’d look for in a nickelback.
Is it possible that Don Capers and the rest had LaDarius Gunter in mind when they let Hyde go? Probably not, but I would nominate him as the next Green Bay nickelback.
It became clear near the end of last season that Gunter’s lack of speed could be exploited when he played outside cornerback. After the playoffs, the whole league is in on the secret. His speed would not be a major impediment at nickelback. Gunter, at 6’2” and 201 pounds (with room for more bulk), likes to get physical at the line of scrimmage. He’s a clingy pass defender. I’d like to see him arrive at camp at close to 210 pounds.
In essentially his first year, and one in which the undrafted player was rushed into service ahead of time, he got lots of experience, playing 83 percent of the Packers’ defensive snaps, and usually drawing the opposition’s best wide receiver.
I can see Gunter having a very productive year as a nickelback in 2017. It’s where he belongs.