Week 1 of this season, Green Bay Packers‘ cornerback Quinten Rollins was taken advantage of by the game-planning of Jacksonville, leading to multiple big plays that included a textbook TD pass to tight end Julius Thomas.
Week 2 it was fellow young cornerback, Damarious Randall, who was the victim of a horrendous game this time around, getting absolutely dominated by Minnesota Vikings’ wide receiver Stefon Diggs (including a TD catch he where he got completely turned around, and the eventual game-sealing penalty in coverage on him) to help undo an otherwise impressive effort by the Packers’ defense in a low-scoring game.
Add in the Week 1 concussion sustained by #1 CB Sam Shields that could keep him out for a while, and the cornerback spot is looking like an area of trouble for Green Bay.
This is a problem that they partially brought on themselves, however.
Let’s take a closer look …
Talented cornerbacks need to show more production
The current collection of corners assembled on this roster is, at least in theory, one of the more talented groups across the entire league.
Looking back to their production last season, that seems to be something we could have reliably banked on showing up on the field every week.
They ranked well both in traditional statistics (6th in total pass defense, as well as being 9th in interceptions with 16), the team also did well in advanced statistics (6th in Pass Defense DVOA, including 2nd vs #2 WRs, 4th vs TEs, 4th vs RBs, and no worse than 14th on passes to any area specific of the field).
These strong rankings came despite letting go of multiple talents at this position in the past couple years. After the 2014 season, both Tramon Williams (longtime starter as the #1 CB for years) and Davon House (a 4th round draft pick in 2011) were allowed to leave; after 2015, they also allowed 2012 3rd rounder Casey Hayward to leave.
With the glut of talent the team had accumulated in the secondary through recent draft picks, the choice to move on from those guys seems, at worst, defensible on its face.
Shields has proven worthy of being a #1 CB when healthy, Randall and Rollins both showed positive signs as rookies to being able to be quality pieces for years, Micah Hyde is a nice CB/S hybrid option in the slot, Demetri Goodson is a decent depth piece, and the team always seems to find undrafted options to add (such as Josh Hawkins this year).
Through two games we see the negative side of how things can play out with the decision to go so heavily on the side of new youthful talents: Sometimes the inexperience can be exploited.
Rollins has plenty of talent, but this is only his third season of playing football, period; his athletic skills are undeniable, but his ability to read and react to what the offense sends his way must be developed further before he can be expected to handle all the different looks and receivers thrown his way against Jacksonville.
Randall has massive potential as well, but he obviously can be taken advantage of if he isn’t given help at times; he was on an island against Diggs all night, and he showed he isn’t ready to handle a player of that caliber on his own — even if that guy is the only viable offensive option for the opposition.
This might be mitigated by more help from veteran options, but the ones Green Bay has haven’t really been there to this point.
How badly do the Packers need experience?
Sam Shields missed Week 2 (after a pretty bad Week 1; Pro Football Focus graded him 38.3 on their 0-100 scale), and might not be back for awhile due to his fourth concussion in six years.
Goodson hasn’t even been able to hit the field yet due to a four-game suspension. Hyde has mostly stayed in slot duty (doing a decent job: his 80.6 PFF grade is 17th-best among corners in the league through two games, a sizeable jump up from his career average grade of 73.6), but doesn’t get utilized often to help outside.
This is the risk teams run by letting go of key depth. You put guys out there when they may not be ready to handle the responsibilities given to them, and the results have a tendency to become high-variance endeavors.
This isn’t to say keeping the guys they let go would have changed things dramatically, but at a time like this those decisions are worth looking back at.
Williams has clearly fallen off from what he used to be while he was with the Packers (his 44.7 PFF rating is almost a 30-point drop from even his worst previous years, and this is coming against a team led by a rookie QB in his first start (Carson Wentz) and a middling-at-best offense led by a QB coming off an ACL tear (Joe Flacco).
House also isn’t working out too well for Jacksonville (41.8 PFF rating this year).
Hayward is the one where the talent drain is most felt, where the idea of just outright allowing your veterans to leave for younger & cheaper options backfires hardest.
He is part of a cornerback trio in San Diego that has three players in PFF’s top 25 cornerbacks (Hayward is 3rd, Brandon Flowers is 18th, and Jason Verrett is 25th), and was arguably the top corner for Green Bay during his four years with the team.
Having Hayward (though he mostly plays in the slot, he could also play outside at times) with this current crop would undoubtedly make this a better team, and his contract was an absolute bargain for what he provides (3 years/$15.3 million).
Those veterans as a whole may not have the same high ceiling as the current players in green and gold, but the intangible elements they could provide (such as the overall knowledge of the defensive scheme, better understanding where everyone needs to be, and the minute reactions/adjustments that can be made as the plays are happening) bring value of their own, and when guys go down (especially the ones who have a wealth of experience within the system) it can leave the youth in a situation for which aren’t quite ready.
Having the guys they let go may not have actually improved upon the issues the team has faced so far at this position on the field, but it does show some of the weaknesses built in with following the ideal of valuing youth over experience.
Without many experienced players in tow at cornerback, Green Bay is suffering the consequences that come with those decisions, and can only hope their young players find their footing on a more consistent basis.
Now, it’s their only option.