Green Bay Packers: Ranking the NFC North secondaries
1. Green Bay Packers
A still-in-his-prime Sam Shields is the elder statesman in the cornerback group at 28 years old. It’s fair to say that the one-time college wide receiver has earned every penny of the four-year, $39-million contract he signed in 2014 by growing from being solely a speed corner to someone who makes great use of his physicality and body positioning to win his downfield battles.
“Silent” Sam is the type who leads by example, but the coaching staff would like to see him become a more vocal leader in light of his experience. The seventh-year veteran will also be working towards playing a complete 16-game season in 2016, something he has yet to accomplish in the pros.
The rookie duo of Damarious Randall and Quinton Rollins experienced their share of growing pains last season, but each showed enough promise for the Packers to have high hopes for both as they draw closer to their Sept. 11 opener in Jacksonville.
Randall began playing with the confidence of a seven-year starter in the latter portion of 2015. His razor-sharp instincts saw the up-and-coming defender author game-changing plays (see 43-yard pick six versus Oakland), but his tackling and coverage discipline are two areas in need of further refinement.
Rollins didn’t start as many games as Randall (four versus nine), but he made his presence felt by leading all NFL rookies with at least 200 snaps in passer rating allowed to the opposition, as noted by Pro Football Focus. In addition, Rollins exhibited outstanding tackling skills along with his natural movement and leaping prowess.
But while the Packers expected the aforementioned rookies to contribute early on, University of Miami product Ladarius Gunter was a true revelation given the fact that he was an undrafted rookie free agent (UDFA) with an undesirably high 4.6 time going into the 2015 draft.
The six-foot-two Alabama native earned the attention of the coaching staff early on with his technique particularly in the way he can press receivers and make it a real challenge for them to get open for easy completions.
Although Gunter played only nine snaps during the regular season, he was an unexpected key contributor in Green Bay’s Wildcard win over the Redskins. The front office’s ability to develop UDFAs like the former Hurricane has softened the impact of Casey Hayward’s departure in free agency.
Going further down the depth chart, Demetri Goodson is a former hoopster that was being brought along slowly, but his four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy has likely given him a much shorter leash than he had prior to the announcement of his punishment.
This year’s UDFA standout could be Mackinton Dorleant who flashed 4.39 speed and 39-inch vertical prior to being signed by the Packers. The five-foot-eleven corner routinely played man coverage at Northern Iowa where he had a knack for perfectly timing his pass deflections with the ball in the air. His technique in supporting the run still needs work.
The heady Micah Hyde in the Swiss Army utility knife in this backfield that can line up at safety or slot corner, as well handling punt-return duties.
The Brooklyn, New York-born Robertson Daniel is far from a household name, but he’s been working hard behind the scenes in his attempt to transition from college safety to an NFL corner. The six-foot-one, 205-pound defensive back profiles as a Gunter type and he’ll need to consistently stand out this summer in order to earn one of the final roster spots.
Over at safety, the Packers feature arguably the top pair of starters at the position with Ha-Ha Clinton Dix and Morgan Burnett. The former is a third-year fast riser who has already established himself as a premiere defender with uncanny recognition skills and range that helps him slip into the opposing backfield and blow up plays.
Burnett, conversely, is a grizzled seven-year veteran that has made strides in recent years in limiting some mistakes that plagued him earlier in his career. The 27-year-old’s ability to serve as an intimidating presence at the line of scrimmage along with his ability to drop back in coverage make him and Clinton-Dix interchangeable chess pieces at the free and strong safety spots.
Chris Banjo is a valuable special-teams ace whose speed often allows him to be the first player to reach the return man and he’s also been known to down a punt or two. The five-foot-ten safety’s text-book tackling technique makes him versatile enough to contribute on defense when needed.
One player to keep an eye on is Kentrell Brice, an unsigned rookie from Louisiana Tech. The unheralded safety opened some with his 42-inch vertical jump at his pro day and has the type of physicality to impose his will on the opposition.
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Green Bay’s upside and overall depth in the defensive backfield is unmatched in the division. This unit will require the front seven to do its part in winning their battles in the trenches and health to reach its potential.