On paper, the Packers feature a stacked lineup at cornerback. Sam Shields possess all the physical tools a cornerback needs and has performed at a high level over the past two years. Tramon Williams' play has been similarly impressive. Corners Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde offer some of what Charles Woodson used to provide in the slot. Davon House and Jarrett Bush have also proven capable in limited roles.
However, that depth has not translated into a strong pass defense. The Packers finished in the bottom half of the league in most relevant pass coverage metrics, and their defense struggled as a result. While certainly some of the blame falls on the safety group (which we'll dig into later this week), the corners also share in that failure. Injuries and inconsistencies have cost the Packers dearly in the secondary, and now the Packers may potentially lose Shields and Williams to free agency and the salary cap respectively.
If that happens, the Packers will need to reload. Here are free agent and draft targets at cornerback that could potentially interest the Packers.
Back in 2006, Packers GM Ted Thompson burned a fairly valuable pick (fourth rounder) to acquire Will Blackmon in the draft. Blackmon spent four years in Green Bay playing primarily as a returner. He was effective in that role, averaging over 21 return yards per kickoff and 12 per punt. Blackmon spent some time in New York doing more of the same before landing in Jacksonville. There he finally earned the chance to play regularly at corner, outplaying nearly everyone else in the Jaguars' secondary.
At 29, Blackmon's neither too old nor too young for a Ted Thompson-built team. He can still play as a returner in an emergency, and he'd be a solid replacement if the Packers fail to re-sign Sam Shields.
One of the more interesting free agents this year will be Walter Thurmond. Because the Seahawks regain the services of Brandon Browner next year and begin the expensive process of extending contracts for their core players, there may not be space for Thurmond. However, he spent the entire 2013 season as a starting edge or slot corner and played well in both roles. Thurmond has the size (5-11, 183) to play in any scheme, and at 26 has yet to play his best football. The question for the Packers will be how much does Seattle's inability to pay Thurmond (assuming they don't re-sign him) deflate his market? After all, Thompson only utilizes free agency when he can get a bargain.
Pierre Desir (Lindenwood)
In my conversations with scouts, several labeled Pierre Desir the best small-school defensive back to come out in over a decade. Desir's size (6-1, 206) makes him an attractive option at both corner and safety. As we've discussed before, the Packers appear interested in adding Desir in the upcoming NFL draft.
Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State)
Like Desir, Gilbert offers position flexibility and great size for a defensive back. Gilbert's experience came at a much higher level, however. He led Oklahoma State's secondary against prime Big 12 passing attacks like Baylor's. While interception numbers don't always translate to the NFL, Gilbert recorded seven of his 12 career interceptions during this past season. Adding a ball hawk would go a long way towards fixing the Packers' addled secondary.
Keith McGill (Utah)
The latest in a long line of big Utah corners, Keith McGill was one of the stars of this year's Senior Bowl. Not only did McGill perform well during practice that week, but he also picked off a pass during the game. There has been some discussion about McGill transitioning to safety. While he certainly has the size (6-3, 214) to do so, his play indicates that he's perfectly capable of sticking at corner. Given the Seahawks' recent success with tall corners, McGill could go much earlier in the draft than many expect.
Ross Cockrell (Duke)
In the past few years, the Packers have demonstrated a preference for corners like Ross Cockrell. What he lacks in speed (estimated to run North of 4.5 in the 40), Cockrell makes up in playmaking. Cockrell intercepted 12 passes during his time at Duke, returning one for a touchdown. He also returned a fumble (that he forced) for a score the same year. While Duke has not been known for churning out great football talent, Cockrell represents a nice value in the middle rounds.
Bennett Jackson (Notre Dame)
Bennett Jackson is still relatively new to the cornerback position. He began his college career at receiver before transitioning to defense during his sophomore season. He blossomed in 2012 and 2013, recording six interceptions and a pick six. Additionally, Jackson returned kickoffs his first two seasons at Notre Dame and could do so again in the pros.
Bene Benwikere (San Jose State)
Of all the players listed in this article, Bene Benwikere is the most likely to dramatically outperform his estimated draft position. Scouts I spoke to back in November believed he could go as high as the third round. While that's not something to bet on, his size (6-0, 197) and production (11.5 tackles for loss, 14 interceptions, three forced fumbles) makes Benwikere an interesting prospect.
Marcus Williams (North Dakota State)
Marcus Williams is among the handful of viable NFL prospects -- OT Billy Turner, RB Sam Ojuri, and QB Brock Jensen being the others -- that North Dakota State graduated this year. Williams can sometimes play too physically and draw penalties, but he's a smart player who with the right coaching should develop into a valuable corner in a few years.
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