Baseball players. Basketball players. Former wide receivers. The Green Bay Packers’ cornerback group sure is a diverse one.
Beginning with Sam Shields in 2010, the Packers have taken chances on more than a few athletes with varying skillsets that fit their cornerback mold. Shields, who played wide receiver at the University of Miami for three years before transitioning to corner as a senior, was an overwhelming success story for Green Bay as an undrafted free agent. His blazing 4.3 speed and 39-inch vertical were measurables that couldn’t be taught, signs of explosiveness that would provide Shields with incredible recovery speed and the ability to break on underthrown balls with ease.
In the seasons following Shields, Green Bay acquired a slew of talent with unique stories, including a few undrafted prospects this offseason.
- Demetri Goodson (2014): Three-year basketball player at Gonzaga before transferring to Baylor and switching his focus to football and the cornerback position.
- Damarious Randall (2015): Two-year baseball player at Butler Community College (KS) and split time at wide receiver at Mesa Community College (AZ) before playing strictly the defensive side of the ball at Arizona State.
- Quinten Rollins (2015): Four-year basketball player at Miami (OH) before starring in one season at cornerback for the Redhawks’ football team.
- Herb Waters (2016): Played wide receiver exclusively for Miami (FL) and for the Packers in training camp before switching to cornerback at its conclusion.
- Raysean Pringle (2017): Played running back and wide receiver for Southern Utah, but is attempting to make the cold-turkey switch to cornerback in training camp.
- Lenzy Pipkins (2017): Did not start playing football until he was a senior in high school and grew to have success at both Louisiana-Monroe and Oklahoma State at the cornerback position.
But all of these odd stories made this writer wonder what prototypical traits catch the eyes of Ted Thompson and his staff when making evaluations. In an article with Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. revealed priority qualities of the position when discussing Waters’ fit:
“I don’t necessarily look at anything other than skill sets, and he has the skill set that I like. He has long arms, he can bend, he has good balance, he has the height. And so now can we work those skill sets into playing defensive back.”
Looking at each of these traits listed by Whitt Jr., a few tendencies began to appear.
All of the players above had at least the 30 ¼ inch arms of Rollins and Randall. Waters led the way with an impressive 33 3/8 inches. This year’s first pick Kevin King measured in at 32 inches, which was above-average for the 2017 cornerback draft class. Surely, Green Bay cherishes corners with length.
Bend is another recurring trait. After Green Bay selected Rollins, Director of Player Personnel Brian Gutekunst praised him for his ability to bend. Being former basketball players, Rollins and Goodson naturally have the hip fluidity to change directions quickly. Similarly, Gutekunst raved about Kevin King’s ability to bend for a taller cornerback immediately after selecting him in April. The Combine’s three-cone drill, which tests fluidity and quickness, has been a critical measurable for Green Bay evaluators. Goodson graded out impressively, while King (cornerbacks) and Randall (safeties) boasted the top time in their respective groups.
Simply put, the Packers don’t draft cornerbacks below 5’11”. In a division that once boasted considerably tall receivers in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Calvin Johnson, Green Bay couldn’t afford to draft players who were five or more inches shorter. When Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner burst onto the scene in Seattle, the lengthy cornerback with size became a sudden NFL trend. However, it’s extremely difficult to find a 6’3” corner that carries the other desired traits of the Packers. Green Bay is banking on King being that rare specimen, as Gutekunst admitted the staff was “cognizant of his size.” Still, Green Bay has been much more inclined to draft and sign cornerbacks that are 5’11” or 6’0” based on the listed players above.
Spatial Awareness/Ball Skills
Neither of these qualities were on Whitt’s list of attributes given to Waters, but they are repeated often by Packers personnel. The Packers were drawn to Randall’s baseball acumen; Thompson, in addition to distinctly praising Randall’s spatial awareness in post-draft interviews, mentioned that his ability to move like a centerfielder and play angles was “a marvelous trait to have.” When Rollins was picked a round later, Gutekunst was salivating over the spatial awareness he learned from playing basketball, specifically the ability to play the ball with his back to it and extend his body to catch the ball.
While all of these above traits are surely important to other teams around the league as well, Green Bay seemingly puts an emphasis on them with the prospects they seek to develop. However, predicting a player’s ability to translate raw skills from one sport or one football position to another remains a difficult evaluation, with Thompson’s picks having varying degrees of success in the NFL.
King will get a lot of the buzz this training camp as the team’s top pick, but watch out for the raw players that caught Green Bay’s eye – Waters, Pringle, and Pipkins. They can be groomed to fit Whitt’s skillset and may have less bad habits to break than a more experienced player.
Maybe another Shields will emerge.