Green Bay Packers face quandary with Sam Shields out at cornerback
For the Green Bay Packers, there were a number of things, both positive and negative, to take away from the season-opening victory against the Jaguars.
Jordy Nelson is easing his way back. Lane Taylor held up very well. Joe Thomas looks like the real deal. Jared Cook is criminally under-utilized.
But the event from Sunday’s game that will have the biggest impact on the Packers’ future is Sam Shields’ concussion.
Shields was concussed while making a tackle in the fourth quarter.
That’s his fourth concussion since entering the NFL, including a severe one that sidelined him for four games last December.
There’s no way of knowing when Shields will be cleared to return to the field. The doctors will rightfully err on the side of caution, given Shields’ concussion history.
I wrote before the draft that cornerback was an under-the-radar need for the Packers.
Here’s what I said then:
"Sam Shields is an exceptional coverage corner, the Jordy Nelson of the group. But behind him, there is far more potential than proven production."
And now, here we are. With Shields out indefinitely, the Packers have exactly one cornerback who has proven himself to be a capable starter: Damarious Randall.
Randall was probably the best defensive player for the Packers this Sunday.
He’s playing with a bevy of confidence, and there’s good reason to believe that he can take Shields’ spot as the Packers’ #1 corner.
But behind Randall, there is little proven talent.
Quinten Rollins played very well last year in his limited opportunities, which probably was the reason that Ted Thompson allowed Casey Hayward to depart in the offseason. Barring disaster, he’ll start.
But Rollins was burned a few times on Sunday, including on a 21-yard touchdown where he got outrun to the end zone by tight end Julius Thomas. As the #2 corner in Shields’ absence, he’ll need to become dramatically more consistent and reliable in coverage.
Ladarius Gunter, meanwhile, was put in on defense following Rollins’ struggles. Upon entering the game, he promptly gave up a 38-yard completion out of the slot to Allen Hurns.
Gunter is an athletically limited corner, though his size and technique make him an option as a boundary corner.
Should he struggle as a starter in Shields’ absence, the Packers have two vastly different options to replace him: Micah Hyde and Josh Hawkins.
Hyde is an experienced, if athletically limited, defensive back. He might be able to do a passable job in the slot position, but he’s better suited covering tight ends and running backs than wide receivers.
The more intriguing option is Hawkins, the undrafted rookie free agent from East Carolina. He is the exact opposite of Hyde, as he’s an explosive athlete with a dearth of NFL experience. The easy comparison to make is Sam Shields.
But it’s important to remember that Shields is an outlier, and it would be exceedingly optimistic to expect Hawkins to replicate Shields’ stellar rookie season in 2010.
In addition, Hawkins is currently battling a hamstring injury that leaves his playing status in doubt.
Joe Whitt Jr. is one the best position coaches in the entire NFL, and the Packers need him now to bring these young players up to speed.
Rollins will improve the more he plays, but someone else will need to step up and become the #3 corner.
Will Gunter live up to the high expectations being placed on him? Can Hawkins transition this quickly to the NFL level? Or will the coaching staff be forced to employ Hyde?
Morgan Burnett was also used at corner at the end of the Jacksonville game, but that was out of pure necessity as he’s not a natural at that spot. The coaches will likely want to keep him at his best position, strong safety.
Randall and Rollins can play both outside and in the slot, so Gunter, Hawkins and Hyde are all options. The guess here is that Gunter plays well enough to solidify a starting spot, but there’s no guarantee that happens.
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With Shields injured, there is no veteran presence in the group except for Hyde. There are three second-year players and one undrafted rookie.
These young players will need to step up in order to keep the defense afloat as they await the return of Shields. If they don’t, then Ted Thompson might regret letting Hayward walk this offseason.