Secondary is primary concern for Packers
Just because a player is paid the big bucks or drafted in the first round doesn't mean that player will do the job.
The Green Bay Packers are betting that cornerback Sam Shields, on whom they lavished a $12.5 million signing bonus in March, won't backslide as safety Morgan Burnett did shortly after being handed an $8.25 million signing bonus last July.
At the same time, the Packers' fingers are crossed that safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the 21st overall selection, doesn't join Ahmad Carroll, Antuan Edwards, Terrell Buckley and Vinnie Clark as their fifth first-round flop from the secondary in a generation.
Stakes are high. Everyone in the building could see how miserably the unit performed last season.
“Correct,” said Joe Whitt, who returns for a sixth season as cornerbacks coach under coach Mike McCarthy and coordinator Dom Capers. “We weren't good.”
Shields allowed more passes of 20 yards (10) than anyone in the secondary and didn't tackle well, either. Still, when push came to shove on the eve of free agency, the Packers extended Shields for probably a lot more (four years, $39 million) money than they originally planned.
“Sometimes you have a gun to your head,” said a leading executive in personnel for an NFC team that also spent extravagantly in spring to retain a capable but not elite player. “If you don't get your guy, then who?”
After sniffing but not biting in the unrestricted safety group, the Packers tried to fill the void that was free safety in 2013 by drafting Clinton-Dix, their No. 1-rated safety.
Now they can only hope it doesn't take Clinton-Dix until his fourth season to become a top-flight player as it once did free safeties Darren Sharper and Nick Collins.
Statistically, the numbers could hardly have been worse for the Packers secondary.
Green Bay gave up 30 touchdown passes, third most in team history. Seven wide receivers in the last 10 games surpassed 100 yards. For the first time in at least 60 years, no Packers safety intercepted a pass.
Is this secondary in search of vindication?
“No question,” answered Darren Perry, the sixth-year safeties coach. “We've got a prideful group. Any time in life you come up short, if you've got the right type of people, they're going to compete.
“As a whole defense, we underperformed.”
Other than M.D. Jennings, the overmatched starter at free safety, everyone else from that train wreck of a secondary is back.
Shields and Tramon Williams might rate as the best pair of cornerbacks in the NFC North, and there are five other interesting players at the position as well. McCarthy could hardly be higher on Micah Hyde, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him starting ahead of Burnett or Clinton-Dix come opening day.
Good defense isn't dependent on a depth chart just like games aren't won on paper. Simply put, players just need to play well in a fundamentally sound system.
“We've got to eliminate the explosives,” said Perry. “We've got to improve techniques and communicate. We can't give up the big plays.”
The leading performer in the secondary last season was Williams, by a narrow margin over Shields. The wiry veteran turned his season around in the last eight games, notching all four of his interceptions and tackling better than he had since his spectacular 2010 campaign.
If age is starting to rob the 31-year-old Williams of cover ability, Whitt professed to being unaware.
“I don't see it right now,” Whitt said in late May. “I see him playing as quick and as fast, and his reactions are as good as I've seen.”
Shields, 26, is among the NFL's fastest players and has 17 interceptions in four seasons. Whitt envisions his star pupil continuing to ascend in 2014-'15 and then sustaining a high level of performance from 2016-'19.
“He's made a lot of big plays,” said Capers. “He can go out and match up on receivers because he's that type of athlete. Now our expectations are he'll have his best year.”
Said an NFC North scout: “He's still at a point where he has to be more consistent but he made plays, especially against Calvin (Johnson). The only thing about Sam is he's undisciplined in terms of his eye control. He'll play with his eyes in the backfield and then he'll lose leverage on a route.
“I thought he played a little bit better and sounder than he has in the past.”
Back from a lost season due to a hamstring injury, Casey Hayward will attempt to regain the nickel job from which he produced a team-high seven takeaways plays in 750 snaps.
“I'm happy to get Hayward back,” said Whitt. “He's a guy that can pull balls off of people. We didn't have enough of that last year in our defense.”
Green Bay's total of 12 interceptions was its lowest since 2005.
Davon House, the consummate size-speed prospect, treaded water in Year 3. His coverage often alternated between superb and disappointing, and at times he hung back in contact situations.
With a big year, House could be an attractive commodity in March as an unrestricted free agent.
“It will be interesting to see who plays,” Whitt said. “He's going to make it hard on those other guys because I honestly believe this is going to be House's best year.”
Jarrett Bush, tied for second in Packers seniority with eight seasons, fared well as the dime back in the last five games after Jerron McMillian, Chris Banjo and House were found lacking. Other than a critical loss of containment against San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs, Bush might have had his finest season.
“He showed a level to be able to cover tight ends last year,” said Whitt. “I wish we had played him more at the dime.”
Whitt compared Jumal Rolle's ball skills to Miami cornerback Brent Grimes. He and rookie Demetri Goodson, the former NCAA Division I point guard, have the ability to challenge.
“Rolle's an ascending guy that we're interested in,” Whitt said. “Goodson will fight his (bleep) off, I do know that.”
Last summer, the Packers took a leap of faith on Burnett with a four-year, $24.75 million extension.
He had played all but 19 snaps in 2011-'12. His effort and commitment were beyond reproach. The athletic ability and size were ideal.
Burnett promptly had a terrible season. Not only didn't he make any big plays, he began to press, got out of position, missed way too many tackles and started hesitating.
It would be fascinating to see, should Burnett's play not pick up, if the coaches would reduce what had always been his every-down, leadership role.
Perry sees the antidote to Burnett's bad year as improved consistency.
“He can cover ground,” an NFC North executive said. “Just doesn't make many dynamic plays, and not a big hitter.”
Unlike Burnett, who was installed as the No. 1 strong safety April 30, Clinton-Dix has worked in a rotation with others. Perry sees the rookie as a free safety and Burnett as a strong safety, but regards both as interchangeable.
“They're talented guys,” said Perry, not to mention almost clones physically. “Both have really good size and are plenty physical enough.”
Hyde proved to be the best tackler in the secondary as a rookie generally spent playing the nickel post vacated by Hayward. Aggressive in coverage, Hyde usually was a step slow when beat. His 4.57 speed might be more compatible with safety.
Starting safety? Slot nickel? Dime safety? Outside nickel? A whole panoply of opportunities await Hyde, who also blitzed effectively.
“Teams don't play with two safeties anymore,” said an AFC personnel man. “They play with three corners and one safety.
“They had a great free safety there for a long time. Now they don't have that guy.”
Banjo (192 snaps) and Sean Richardson (172) received substantial looks a year ago and failed to make much headway. Banjo is short but can really run, whereas the 219-pound Richardson provides a physical presence but shows stiffness in coverage.