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Packers 2015 Position Grades: Rookie Cornerbacks shine

Green Bay's emphasis on improving the cornerback unit with young talent paid dividends this year.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2015 season. Today, we examine the cornerbacks. Follow along with all of our positional breakdowns here.

From 1992-2000 Ron Wolf made the defensive backfield a key component of building the Green Bay Packers. 1994 was the only year in which Wolf did not add defensive back depth through the draft.  Wolf added players like Doug Evans, Craig Newsome, Darren Sharper, Mike McKenzie... and Terrell Buckley.  Top defenses in recent years have made the cornerback position a glamorous one.  Some of the best defenses in the league feature players like Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Josh Norman.  In an era of big passing games and bigger receivers, the ability to rush the passer and cover down the field are perhaps the two single most important aspects of a defense.  The cornerbacks on the 2015 Packers played big all year.

The defensive backfield kept this team in games when the offense sputtered late in the year.  The Packers defense ranked 6th in passing yards per game (227.6) and 9th in interceptions (16).  Opposing quarterbacks did not fare well against the Packers.  Opponents completed only 58.3% of their passes against the Packers, good for 4th in the NFL.  Packers also held opposing passers to a 80.1 passer rating, the 7th-best in football.

Here is a look at the cornerbacks who did much of that work.

Sam Shields

Shields missed several games down the stretch with a concussion. and ended with just 12 starts this year. In that time, he managed three interceptions and 16 passes defensed.  Opponents did not throw Shields' way a great deal.  Many teams attempted to attack the younger cornerbacks on this team.  Still, Shields saw his fair share of duty guarding opposing teams' best receivers and held his own.

Shields has the ability to run with anyone down the field.  At 28 years old, Shields is now the elder statesman of the defensive backfield.  He has come from being a raw talent to being a top tier-cornerback.  Shields is a legitimate #1 corner and should start on any team in the league.

Casey Hayward

Hayward has become a slot cover cornerback, playing 82% of his snaps in the slot.  He seems to have become pigeonholed as an inside cover guy. This is still a strength, as Hayward ranked among the best in the league in terms of yards per snap in coverage. Hayward was in coverage for 276 snaps in 2015 and was only targeted 26 times for 115 yards. When throwing at Hayward, quarterbacks had a rating of 74.6.

Hayward is a liability when he has to play outside, however. So far, this has been easily remedied with the fact that he has been incredibly strong playing the slot receivers.  Hayward gets enough time on the field since teams go to more and more three and four receiver sets.  Hayward was actually second on the team in solo tackles with 56.  He is physical and able to get things done in space and in the wash.

Damarious Randall

Randall made good on his first-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft.  Randall finished right behind Hayward with 53 solo tackles.  Randall's presence added another athletic player in the secondary and a sure tackler.  He showed that he is unafraid of contact and has a good knack for reading plays.  Randall tied for the team lead in interceptions with three and led the team in passes defensed, and even managed to convert one of his interceptions into a touchdown. It was not a spectacular year, but he met every expectation.

The picks and the passes defensed showed how well Randall was able to close on the ball.  He was able to get his hands on the ball frequently and timed his plays very well.  His ability as a tackler also helped this team in avoiding the big play.

Quinten Rollins

Rollins was the second part of the one-two combination from Ted Thompson's 2015 draft.  Rollins got less playing time than Randall this year, but still showed great ball skills.  In 14 games (four starts), Rollins had 28 solo tackles.  That was good enough to round out the top ten on the team.  Rollins had two interceptions and returned one for a touchdown.  Rollins also showed his ball skill by posting six passes defensed.

Rollins has good awareness and provided strong support when Shields was injured.  With Micah Hyde on the field in many dime packages, Rollins did not see a great amount of time as the fourth corner.  Still, with injuries in the backfield throughout the year, Rollins was a great asset to the team.

Demetri Goodson

Along with Rollins, Goodson is one of two former college point guards now playing cornerback for the Packers.  Goodson is surprisingly old (at 26) for a player with his lack of experience.  Goodson was stashed away last year and brought up to speed.  Goodson was available in 14 games, but saw very limited time and managed seven tackles and a pass defensed while playing primarily on special teams.  Goodson did not see a great deal of playing time, but looked capable.

LaDarius Gunter

Gunter made the team after being signed as an undrafted free agent. At 6'2", he is the biggest cornerback on the team (the other five are all listed at 5'11"). Gunter's poor combine times scared off enough people to let him fall out of the draft.  He played in eight games this year and managed two tackles.  I like his ability to play the ball.  Gunter made a few appearances in the playoff game against Washington.  Shields was intriguing as an undrafted rookie free agent because of his speed, but Gunter has the physical presence to stay with big receivers.  If he can develop into a nickel corner, that would be great value.  There is not a lot to evaluate in terms of his performance in 2015, but he was reliable when called upon.

Overall Grade: A-

This squad matched up very well this year.  The Packers had a moderately balanced schedule (9 games against bottom 16 passing teams, 7 games against top 16), and the unit played very well.  Many of the sacks for this team were coverage sacks and the injection of new blood paid off. There are not many positions where you can feel this comfortable with the players listed as third-string on the depth chart.  On the list of all the things that went wrong with 2015, the cornerbacks were clearly not mentioned.

I give the minus because there were inconsistencies along the way.  That is, in part, due to the youth of this position. Still, it is hard to give a grade lower than this to a unit that helped put the Packers in the top ten in every major defensive passing category.