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Packers’ third-year cornerbacks expect bounce-back seasons in 2017

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A pair of young Packers are setting out to prove that their 2016 campaigns were a fluke, not a trend.

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers Rick Wood-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, the greatest weakness of the Green Bay Packers’ defense was the depleted cornerback unit. The unit that started the season ranked as the seventh-best group of corners in the NFL truly fell apart, losing players to injury early and often as the campaign went along.

First, Sam Shields’ concussion took out the team’s number one corner and the position group’s veteran leader. In the succeeding weeks, promising second-year corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins suffered groin injuries, and replacement Demetri Goodson suffered a gruesome knee injury that landed him on injured reserve. These injuries left the Packers with undrafted second-year corner LaDarius Gunter in the unenviable position as the team’s de facto number one boundary cornerback. The team still employed Micah Hyde as a versatile slot corner and safety, but rotated through the injured Randall and Rollins opposite Gunter — whose lack of foot speed limited him against top receivers — in an effort to keep up with opposing wideouts.

This offseason, although Shields was released (and his football career is likely over) and Hyde departed for Buffalo in free agency, the Packers return the remainder of the unit along with another body in rookie draft pick Kevin King and free agent signee Davon House. With those two players figuring to be in the mix for the starting jobs on the boundary, the Packers must find reliable slot corners and depth in order to avoid a similar fate to that of last year’s group, which finished among the worst in the league in yards and touchdowns allowed.

To examine just what went wrong, we need to take a look at the numbers and find out just how serious the injuries to Randall and Rollins were and how they hampered the two young corners even as they still played ten and 13 games, respectively.

Injuries

Ultimately, although Shields’ injury was unfortunate and untimely, the team could have absorbed it if not for the groin injuries to Randall and Rollins. Both players suffered similar injuries, although they missed different amounts of time and had surgeries several months apart.

Randall sat out for a total of six games after having surgery on his groin in October. When he did return, he was hardly himself, playing tentatively to avoid aggravating the injury further. Randall told ESPN’s Jason Wilde as much this week: “Not to make excuses, but obviously it was the injuries. I mean, I didn’t want to tackle nobody. Because I was afraid to tweak it, pull it, hurt it again.” However, he says that he played hurt for the good of the team: “We were low on numbers, so I had to do what I had to do to play in the games.”

Rollins, on the other hand, was out for three contests but was also nagged throughout the year, as he put off surgery until the season had concluded. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Michael Cohen, who spoke to Rollins, the same doctor who repaired Randall’s groin performed the surgery on Rollins.

Stats

The numbers speak for themselves. Although Randall did see one area of improvement — average yards per gain — that was the only number that improved for any of the three second-year corners from their rookie seasons to 2016. Here are the base statistics for balls thrown into each player’s coverage, from Pro Football Focus:

Randall Rollins Gunter Stats 2015 2016
Pro Football Focus

Clearly, there’s only really room to go up from here on a per-snap basis. Good health should do it, even if these three end up in lesser roles moving forward.

One promising sign for Randall is the fact that he maintained his ball skills, nabbing a total of four interceptions (including playoffs) for the second straight season. Two of those came in the Packers’ win over the Seattle Seahawks at home, and he also picked off Eli Manning in the end zone during the Packers’ Wild Card victory over the Giants.

Progress for 2017

The first encouraging sign for these two young players is that both began the the offseason workout program with no restrictions and both were able to fully participate in the team’s first set of OTA practices last week.

In OTAs, the two practiced primarily in the slot, with House and Gunter manning the boundary and the rookie King remaining away from Green Bay due to the University of Washington operating on the quarter system. As such, it is too early to tell what roles the Packers envision for the two players and for the cornerback unit as a whole this season.

However, we can glean some information from OTAs. First, the coaching staff appears to value the two players’ quickness inside. After playing safety at Arizona State, the Packers’ moving him to boundary corner surprised many analysts; perhaps he would be better-suited to stay in the slot, where he excelled as a cover slot/safety in college. For Rollins, the slot seems his logical alignment since he has neither the straight-line speed of House, Randall, or King, nor the size of King and Gunter.

Still, these players have combined for 11 interceptions in their first two seasons, and we saw what happened last season when wide receiver Davante Adams was able to get fully healthy for an entire season. If Randall and Rollins have continued to develop their mental acuity for the game and can remain healthy in 2017, they could make an excellent pair of depth corners, and we can see Randall pushing for a starting spot somewhere in the Packers’ nickel defense.

Perhaps after this year, we’ll look back at that 7th-place ranking from a year ago and think that if not for injuries, it would have been perfectly reasonable.