* = starter; + = roster spot
* Sam Shields
* Casey Hayward
* Morgan Burnett
* Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix
+ Micah Hyde
+ Sean Richardson
+ Chris Banjo
+ Damarious Randall
+ Quinten Rollins
+ LaDarius Gunter
January 18, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields (37) celebrates after he intercepts a pass intended for Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse (15) during the first half in the NFC Championship game at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The defensive backs are probably the biggest spot of intrigue for the defense this offseason. That stems mostly from the fact that the cornerback spot lost two long-time members (Tramon Williams and Davon House) and added new faces through the draft and undrafted free agency. At the least, there is a new starting spot that was opened.
Whoever it is will be across from Green Bay’s #1 cornerback, Sam Shields. Shields got himself paid last offseason to be that guy. He wasn’t quite on that level at times last season, but he has plenty of physical skill and a history of performing well in the past; we should see more of that in 2015.
The first person to get a chance opposite him is Casey Heyward, and we should be excited. When he’s been healthy, Heyward has been a dynamic option who’s basically a brick wall to opposing pass-catchers; he had one of the best rates for opposing completion percentage on passes targeted to receivers he was covering. He’s also a guy that led all rookies with INTs in his first season (6) and had three more in 2014 despite spending most of his time as the 4th CB. All the statistics point to him being a star in the making, someone that needs to see the field more for Green Bay. As long as he stays healthy (an issue so far in his career) he should lock down that 2nd corner spot easily.
Aug 3, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42) practice during training camp at Ray Nitschke Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
At safety, the combo of the underrated Morgan Burnett and talented 2nd year man Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will hold down the starting spots.
Burnett was lobbied as part of the problem at safety before 2014, but he proved that to be an issue moreso with his injury trouble the previous season than a lacking of ability. He ended up being one of the better safeties across the league in 2014 and should be able to continue to show his talents. Meanwhile Clinton-Dix had a slow start to the season but managed to force his way into being a starter after not too long. He saved his best for last in 2014, grabbing two INTs in that NFC Championship game. He still has room to improve (his tackling can be an issue), but he should keep rising in the ranks of safeties and show off his impressive skills to more success in 2015.
Beyond the starters are tons of intriguing options.
Micah Hyde has spent time all around the back end of the defense during his career so far. He has taken snaps at all corner positions at different times and was the starter at safety last season until Clinton-Dix eventually took over. Don’t mistake that as him not being good enough; a big part of the decision was rooted in his versatility, which should keep him active on the defense this year too. For now, he should be expected to hold down the nickel corner spot and at the least get snaps there and in dime packages all year (barring injury).
Sep 3, 2015; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins (24) breaks up the pass intended for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Willie Snead (83) during the second quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Damarious Randall was a suspect pick at first (to me and plenty of other fans out there hoping for a pick to solidify the ILB slot), but the more I looked back the more sense it made. Green Bay needed more corner depth for now and the future, and Randall –though listed at that time as a safety — provided that. His ability to work both in the slot and on the outside have been projected and tested throughout offseason work and he looks to be another impactful presence for whatever Dom Capers draws up.
The same can be said for Quinten Rollins; he can likely be used the same way. He’s more raw (he only had one season of playing football so far) but his knack for not only being around the ball but getting his hands on it have been readily apparent. He may not be ready for full-time work yet, but he could still make an immediate impact in small doses for now.
Sean Richardson was brought back for safety depth after his offer sheet with the Oakland Raiders was matched. He didn’t see many snaps on defense, but did get time in some specialty packages last season (notably the “Big Okie” package that replaces a linebacker with a safety). His biggest reason for not being allowed to leave though is his value to the special teams unit; in 2014, he saw the most snaps there of anybody on the team. For a unit that needs improvement (ranked #32 by the highly-touted Dallas Morning News’s annual special teams rankings), keeping the most productive member seems to be a good call.
Aug 23, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Green Bay Packers defensive back Sean Richardson (28) and linebacker Jermauria Rasco (59) celebrate a defensive stop against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers won 24-19. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
That same special teams sentiment can be applied to Chris Banjo as well; he was another high-snap guy for the unit. While he won’t see much time on defense, the value Banjo can add to the grossly underwhelming special teams group is enough to garner his place on the final 53.
For the last defensive back spot, there was no other choice in my eyes than LaDarius Gunter.
He may not have time in the system the way someone like Demetri Goodson or Tay Glover-Wright does, or the status of being a former draft pick (also Goodson), but Gunter has shown more to look forward to. His name routinely popped up throughout the offseason (for good reasons) and he grabbed an INT during the preseason.
He’s shown enough potential that if he’s cut, someone else will snap him up quick; that’s the exact type of move smart teams tend to avoid allowing to happen. By all accounts, Green Bay has tended to be a pretty smart team under the leadership of Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson; expect them to continue to do so.