“Feel,” is one of those esoteric words we use in sports that lacks a clear meaning and describes something we otherwise struggle to quantify or even articulate. And yet for some positions in the NFL, it’s an essential trait for success.
The way the modern NFL looks, no position requires feel more than cornerback, where instincts and spatial awareness are essential qualities for a good player. Think of all the ways Charles Woodson added value to the Packers’ defense with nuance and freelancing, his instincts guiding him to make players. There’s a primacy to the ability to simply be a playmaker, something that can’t be improved upon.
You either have it, or you don’t.
For a decade, the corners Ted Thompson drafted didn’t have it. Too often, it appeared Thompson would rely on cornerback coach Joe Whitt’s success developing players like Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, preferring ultra-raw prospects who inevitably had to come in and play right away.
Players with great feel for the game can fake it ‘till they make it. They don’t have to understand every call and every route concept they face because they have great instincts. It’s what allowed Casey Hayward—Thompson’s one lone home run—to thrive early in his career.
Looking back at his track record though, a grim pattern emerges. Here are the players, in order, he drafted to play cornerback for the Packers.
- Michael Hawkins (2 NFL seasons)
- Kurt Campbell (Doesn’t even have a Pro Football Reference page)
- Will Blackmon (Never much more than a punt returner)
- Pat Lee (4 NFL seasons)
- Brandon Underwood (2 NFL seasons with an inglorious flame out)
- Davon House (Ok ... I mean, he’s Davon House. That’s fine for a fourth rounder)
- Casey Hayward (Has been an All-Pro since he left Packers)
- Micah Hyde (Played safety in college and became an Pro Bowl safety for the Bills)
- Demetri Goodson (Former basketball player)
- Damarious Randall (Free safety in college)
- Quinten Rollins (Former basketball player)
- Kevin King (TBD)
Thompson absolutely deserves credit for signing Charles Woodson, a move that has been retconned into being an obvious move at the time. Don’t forget, Woodson initially didn’t want to come to Green Bay, but he didn’t have any better options. Thompson took a risk to sign him. There’s also the obvious successes of UDFAs with Sam Shields and Tramon Williams. Who knows? Lenzy Pipkins might be next.
But outside of Casey Hayward, how many of these drafted cornerbacks came to the NFL with any idea how to actually play the position? That seems like an obvious trait to want from a corner, and yet there’s over a decade of evidence to suggest Thompson prioritized physical traits over feel.
We can blame Dom Capers for failing to recognize Hyde’s obvious ability as a playmaking safety, or for not putting Casey Hayward in a better position to thrive. It’s not Capers’ fault Hayward struggled to stay healthy and after his rookie season developed an unfortunate allergy to tackling.
Injuries forced the Packers hand with Randall, a player who the team now admits was playing out of preferred position simply because the team needed him to as a rookie.
Rollins, boasting a similar size/statistical profile to current rookie Josh Jackson, racked up interceptions in one year in the MAC, but never truly demonstrated the type of feel you look for at the position. He could find the ball and make plays on it; those aren’t the same thing.
Jackson, by contrast, had five total interceptions against the two best teams in the Big Ten last season, returning two for touchdowns. No one got his hands on more balls thrown at him than Jackson last season according to Pro Football Focus. Whatever the nebulous idea of “feel” truly means, Jackson has it, despite starting just one season at Iowa.
Physically, he’s not a departure from the Thompson ideology and he’s a little on the raw side to play press man coverage right away, but his feel as a playmaker and an instinctive cover corner would best any player the Packers drafted under Thompson, including Hayward.
And not only did Brian Gutekunst eschew the traditional height standards to draft Jaire Alexander, but he too has outstanding feel and polish. He comes in ready to play from Day 1, having played man coverage at Louisville and showing outstanding awareness and playmaking ability. Jackson led the nation in passer rating when targeted last season. Opposing quarterbacks threw at him at their own peril.
Finding not one but two players with this level of instinct and awareness may have been a stroke of luck. Aside from a few instances, Thompson never got to pick as high as Gutekunst did when he nabbed Alexander and Jackson’s fall certainly feels like a lucky break for Green Bay. But if Alexander and Jackson become good players, particularly early on in their careers, it will highlight just how poorly Thompson managed the position in terms of finding a post-Woodson succession plan.
Ultimately, Thompson’s failure at the position boil down to this same nebulous bug-a-boo of feel. He just never found enough players with it to salve the wound left when Woodson departed or while Sam Shields was working through his concussions.
In one draft Gutekunst found a pair of players with playmaking instincts, recognition skills, and ready-made awareness for the position. They have feel. Now we just have to find out if they can translate it to NFL success.