This thought process started when I happened to read a Pro Football Focus article that listed their “Top 10 NFL players who can bounce back in Year 2.” With hundreds of NFL rookies to choose from, both Green Bay Packers cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones made the list. Using its own rankings, based on an individual grade for every play they played on the year, PFF placed King in the 115th spot out of 121 qualified cornerbacks. Jones, meanwhile, finished at 74th out of 86 safeties. Even worse than I had thought.
As to King, both PFF and I observed a distinct lack of aggressiveness. King was always in the vicinity, made the tackles, and looked smooth – he just wasn’t challenging or harassing receivers. PFF predicts a changed player under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, because Pettine will be ordering more press coverage, not the loosey-goosey “cover-2” that Packers fans have had to painfully witness through the years. PFF feels King has the length, athleticism, and ball skills to harass receivers at the line of scrimmage, and continue to battle them downfield.
What PFF noted about Jones was that he graded out very decently in seven games, and struggled mightily in seven others. They feel he had too many positive performances to think that his poor showings are indicative of his ability. To me, Jones actually seemed to play better the first half of the year – his play in week 3 against the Bengals was critical in that overtime win.
I just did a post about the Packers receivers regressing as a group. Light bulb moment: the same can be said about Green Bay’s defensive backs, but even more so. In fact, this pattern of regression is a damning indictment of former defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Let’s start with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Here’s a starter since his rookie year, he’s never missed a game or had injury problems, and yet his performance plummeted badly in 2017. He’s decayed, not thrived, under Capers.
Safety Morgan Burnett, as steady and fundamentally sound as he is, has not gotten better in his eight years under Dom Capers. He’s gone from three early seasons of 107 or more tackles to 68 in 2017. Though he’s never had great numbers at interceptions or passes defended, last year’s totals of zero and three are downright embarrassing.
Cornerback Damarious Randall? After a decent rookie year, he had a disastrous season in 2016, and followed up with an uneven year in 2017. In nine starts as a rookie, Randall had 58 tackles and 14 passes defended, while in 12 starts last season he only had 47 tackles and nine passes defended. Let’s hope the coaching changes will bring out the best in Randall in his fourth year. Just to get him back to his rookie season would be a blessing.
Cornerback Davon House had a fine year in 2015 (he barely played in 2016) with the Jaguars: 60 tackles four interceptions, 23 passes defended. In his return to Green Bay last season, his injury problems cannot excuse his stat line of 40 tackles, one interception and six passes defended. Though I’m glad the Packers brought him back (considering the alternatives), his play declined compared to past years.
Safety Kentrell Brice was just starting to look good in 2017 when an ankle injury ended his season after six games.
Let’s not talk about cornerback Quinten Rollins. I don’t think any amount of coaching will help here – he’s just out of his league.
Any number of other defensive backs have had some opportunities to step in and prove themselves, but Josh Hawkins, Jermaine Whitehead, and so on have failed to make major advances. We’ll see, maybe Mike Pettine will bring out the best in Marwin Evans, Lenzy Pipkins, and others.
How about former Packer Micah Hyde? From 2013 through 2016, Hyde’s career showed no upswing. His highest number of tackles was 59 in 2014; for interceptions, three in 2015 and 2016; and nine passes defended in 2016. Hyde then left Capers and the Packers and in his fifth year, in Buffalo, he established career highs of 82 tackles, five interceptions, and 13 passes defended. How can you not conclude that Hyde was held back in Green Bay from reaching his potential?
Dare I go back further in Capers’ Green Bay years, which began in 2009?
Charles Woodson, from 2010 through 2012, totaled 204 tackles and 10 interceptions. Apparently washed up, he was let go by the Packers. During the next three years, however, the aging star had 282 tackles and 10 interceptions for the Raiders.
There’s Casey Hayward of course. After a great rookie season in 2012, things went downhill in the next three years under Capers. The Packers judged him to be of little talent, and freely let him go to the Chargers – where he’s been named to the Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro both years. Hayward has since let it be known that he was not allowed to put his full talents to use in Green Bay.
Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Atari Bigby, Jarrett Bush, Chris Banjo – pretty much the same story. I’ll stop here – I can’t find any defensive back who has “developed” or registered notably improved stats in his time in Green Bay under Dom Capers.
The Mike Pettine Era
We’ll know soon enough, probably by November, if new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is able to get more out of the Packers’ defensive backfield personnel. There are no better measuring sticks than Kevin King and Josh Jones – who came to camp with so much promise and who instead wound up on PFF’s 2017 underachiever list.
Capers has been given a wealth of promising players to develop – King, Jones, Randall, Rollins (possibly), Clinton-Dix, and Hayward were all taken in the draft’s first two rounds. Until this January, Mike McCarthy just sat there and watched as these near-can’t-miss prospects got worse instead of better. My strong belief is that King and Jones will indeed bounce back from their rookie campaigns under Pettine’s generalship.