In a previous post I argued that shoring up Green Bay’s defensive backfield should be Job 1 for the Packers, and I urged that safety Morgan Burnett be re-signed to a multi-year contract. Now let’s talk about the rest of the team’s DBs.
On the Packers’ current 75-man roster are these safeties: Kentrell Brice, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Marwin Evans, Josh Jones, and Jerome Whitehead.
The roster also lists these cornerbacks: Donatello Brown, Demetri Goodson, Josh Hawkins, Kevin King, Lenzy Pipkins, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, and Herb Waters.
I’m going to assume that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be given a wide berth by coach Mike McCarthy to fill out the season-opening defensive roster and practice squad spots as he sees fit. It was Pettine who made the cupboard comparison in remarks to the press.
I believe Pettine is well into the process of viewing hundreds of hours of existing film on the above 15 players. I further suspect that even before the players show up for OTAs, he’ll have tentatively eliminated a half dozen of these guys – barring some brilliant performances at training camp.
A Surplus of Talent at Safety
Morgan Burnett should anchor this unit. Josh Jones had a steady first year, and he should continue to get better in 2018 – I think he’s a future Pro Bowler. With Pettine letting everyone know all jobs are up for grabs, I see Kentrell Brice in a contest with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for free safety starter – I’m not sure that Ha Ha is up to the challenge.
I expect to see three safeties on the field for many plays, and the Packers may have four who are starter-quality. As injuries piled up last season, Marwin Evans gave every indication that he’s a capable replacement. Jerome Whitehead will have to cut down on mistakes dramatically, or the practice squad awaits him.
Damarious Randall passed a big test last season. I think he’s locked down one of the outside corner jobs. On the other side of the field, I see Kevin King competing against Davon House or whatever other veteran the Packers bring in. King is the far better athlete, and should wind up with the majority of the snaps. King strikes me as the guy in this grouping with the biggest potential for a break-out season.
Quinten Rollins was simply a bad draft pick – the guy does a 4.57 40-yard dash, and the rest of his combine scores aren’t much better. He has no upside. Unless he transforms himself, he a candidate for cutting.
That leaves five players who for the most part went undrafted. Most don’t merit any more of a chance than they’ve had – the exceptions being Josh Hawkins and Lenzy Pipkins. Perhaps one or both will thrive under Pettine’s leadership.
No Draft Choices Needed
Pettine has ample defensive backfield talent to work with. Not one of these 15 guys is yet 30, and the top second year guys, Jones and King, got 731 and 380 snaps respectively as rookies. I hope the team saves their draft picks for other positions. Last year I predicted the pass defense would wind up in the top half of the league. They didn’t make it, largely due to injuries, but they still improved from 31st to 23rd in passing yards allowed – that’s giving up 500-plus fewer yards.
With Pettine’s presence, inspiration, and demanding nature, I feel that the pass defense will jump up at least 10 more spots in 2018 – he’s accomplished it elsewhere. And this all assumes no new talent coming on board.
From what we’ve heard, Mike Pettine is a big believer in favorably matching his players against opposing offensive players. I can’t recall when Dom Capers ever started different defensive backs from week to week in order to get better matchups against various receivers. It’s likely Pettine will do this, because he’s got a full palette of DBs possessing different talents – and having different weaknesses.
This brings me to a final thought. On September 12 last year, Ladarius Gunter was foolishly released by the Packers after the first regular season game. He was picked up the next day by Carolina, and sat on their bench the remainder of the year. Gunter is a guy with great strengths and one glaring weakness – a lack of speed.
In 2016, he absolutely had the tightest coverage on receivers, as shown by his 12 passes defended. No teammate reached double digits. He was also the feistiest DB on the team – no other DB in several years has relished taking on a receiver at the line of scrimmage. He’s also a fine and sure tackler (54 in 2016), and he’s got good size at 6’2” and 201 pounds. And, he’s stayed healthy.
He shouldn’t be assigned to cover Julio Jones (though he was), but he could play a valuable role when properly matched up.
Gunter is a Mike Pettine type of player. I’d love to see the Packers trade a sixth or seventh round pick to acquire him back.