Packers’ Defensive Backs – the Cupboard’s Not Bare

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Josh Jones

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.

Cornerback Contests

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

About The Author

Rob is currently twiddling his thumbs on Whidbey Island in Washington. He likes to do research, although he has no shortage of opinions. He saw his first live Packers game in 1958, the only win of the year.

12 Comments on "Packers’ Defensive Backs – the Cupboard’s Not Bare"

  1. Big B

    Rollins lacked speed before his injury…….it’s certainly not going to improve after an Achilles tendon rupture. He is as good as gone in GB. Another high defensive draft pick squandered.

  2. Kato

    Pick BPA. If that is a defensive back, so be it. The packers should end up with a top 5 defensive player in the entire draft.

    • PF4L

      We don’t have to draft for need anymore. We can finally go back to drafting BPA again. We now have so many needs, the BPA will fill anyone one of them.

    • Kato, what do you think if Quenton Nelson was the best player available at pick 14? I know he is a guard but I think he could also play tackle. I think he is projected top ten, if not 5. Guards tend to drop in the draft. Or do the Packers only go best defensive player available?

      • Kato

        I think best defensive player available. There is something to be said for protecting the most important player on your team, and potentially building a strong running game to play ball control keeping that defense off the field. But the packers will never be a ball control team with Rodgers as the QB.

        I have said this in previous posts, and I will say it again. The packers are in DIRE need of a consistent playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. A guy that is going to make plays when the game is on the line. If you want to be a championship team, you are going to be playing other great teams in tight games. In 2015 against the Cardinals, there was no one making those kind of plays. See Fitzgerald burning the defense. I wouldn’t necessarily count on Pettine’s defense automatically making an existing player one of those guys.

      • Kato

        To add to this thought, if Gutekunst is sitting there after the top five picks are gone and there was a run of QBs taken, and there is an all pro generational talent kind of guy sitting there, then he has to do what’s necessary to get that guy. Now is not the time to be conservative. If you have to give up a first round pick in next years draft to move into the top ten, so be it. As Kevin Greene once said, the time is now.

  3. PF4L

    Sometimes telling the whole story is important. It’s true that our pass defense improved, in overall team rankings over last season.

    But….the 2017 defense saw 58 less passing attempts against them. The 2017 pass defense also gave up a higher completion percentage than in 2016.

    Now the stat that is the most important, is points per game, both years are almost identical at 24 ppg.

    Looking at the big picture….I’m gonna call it a wash.

    Other fun facts…The Eagles 4th ranked defense gave up 18.4 ppg. The Patriots 29th ranked defense gave up 18.5 ppg.

    A few months ago, i did some research on what it takes to get to the Super Bowl with a defense regarding points per game going back 3 decades.

    Giving up 24 PPG earns you an early exit in the playoffs in most cases.

    As far as the rest of the article, i usually don’t drink kool-aid, but when i do, i like it cold, green and gold and i chug it down.

    • PF4L

      Kind of like when Dix playing center field, caught 3 or 4 picks on overthrown balls right to him in 2016. Then you watch Dix on the field last season and you start to wonder if he even wants to be there.

  4. S.M. Belekurov

    LOVED idea of bringing Gunter back, he outperformed his experience and deficiency in speed, at least in my mind. CB in draft, probably not in rd1. You have Ward who may not be body type for Pettine’s schemes of jamming at line, disrupting the route and if Gutekunst shares aversion smaller Db’s(from Wolf tree) probably a no go, Josh Jackson is right body type and has ball skills but is less stellar in coverage from down to down, similar to slightly more athletic Randall. Nice article, but I t we gotta get some high end young DB’ vital to Pettine’s style of D.

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