OK, it wasn’t actually worse. The pass defense improved, Damarious Randall bounced back after a rough start, and Davon House’s return to the team buoyed a young, inconsistent secondary.
Unfortunately for the Packers, the only corner who stayed healthy all season was Randall, with rookie Kevin King battling a shoulder injury that ultimately ended his year. House fluttered in and out of the lineup with nagging soft tissue injuries, and Quinten Rollins went out in September with a season-ending injury.
An avalanche of injuries pressed safety Morgan Burnett into the nickel corner role for stretches of the season and wouldn’t you know it, he couldn’t stay healthy either.
In all, it’s difficult to evaluate this secondary given how banged up it was yet again, not to mention the deleterious effect of playing in an outmoded scheme from Dom Capers.
2017 stats: 12 starts, 44 tackles, 1 sack, 6 passes defended, 1 interception
One of just two corners to play more than 50% of snaps for the Packers this season, even House missed four games with injury. He was certainly less than fully healthy for several others.
Anyone expecting the 28-year-old former Packer to come in and become Richard Sherman set expectations far too high. That said, House rarely made impact plays and gave up some ugly completions thanks to poor technique.
According to Pro Football Focus, House gave up a 107.1 quarterback rating when targeted. Take that with a grain of salt, but suffice it to say he wasn’t the sort of reliable starter the Packers hoped they were getting when they brought him back.
2017 stats: 12 starts, 47 tackles, 9 passes defended, 4 interceptions
After a rocky start that included being benched in a bizarre situation where Randall was originally reported to have walked off the field, the third-year former safety from Arizona State came through as easily the most reliable member of the Green Bay secondary.
Once he started playing the slot, a position he says he loved playing, Randall started locking down opponents and making plays, punctuating by his pick-six off a tip in the Cowboys game.
As injuries mounted, Randall resumed his role as an outside corner in non-nickel situations and once again showed the promise we saw from him as a rookie, highlighted by his play against the Browns Josh Gordon.
If we were giving out individual grades, Randall would no doubt be at the top of the cornerback class for the Packers.
2017 stats: 5 starts (9 games played), 27 tackles, 5 passes defended
When King started getting reps with the starters in training camp, Dom Capers wrote all over the wall: they wanted King to start.
Damarious Randall’s poor play to start the season, and the realization that Quinten Rollins simply couldn’t hold up outside, Capers inserted King against the Falcons on the outside in Week 2. By the end of that game, he was the starter.
Playing through a shoulder injury he also battled in college, King showed toughness as a willing tackler, but also showed his inexperience getting beat up by Drew Brees, A.J. Green, Antonio Brown and the best offensive players on the Packers schedule.
That’s to be expected from a rookie cornerback. Offseason surgery will hopefully get him back to play aggressively in 2018, especially under Mike Pettine’s guidance, but his rookie year will mostly be one to forget.
2017 stats: 1 start (6 games), 17 tackles, 2 passes defended
With as quickly as Rollins lost his job, there’s reason to wonder why he started in the first place. In his six games, Rollins gave up 17 catches on 18 targets (!) with a touchdown and a 124.5 rating when targeted according to PFF.
Again, these numbers are hardly official, but they certainly match with what the eye test said about how poorly Rollins played. He looked too slow to run with receivers on the outside or quick enough to stick to them in the slot. An ankle injury landed him on injured reserve, but his poor play kept him off the field.
It’s hard to imagine the Packers want Rollins to play any kind of pivotal role in this defense moving forward.
2017 stats: 3 starts (15 games), 37 tackles, 6 passes defended
Hawkins parlayed a strong preseason into a more prominent role once the injuries hit the Packers secondary. In fact, one could argue he outplayed King in training camp and through the preseason, but Green Bay clearly trusted King’s talent to come through.
Hawkins certainly didn’t. Playing the fourth-most snaps of the corners, Hawkins posted the worst quarterback rating when targeted (126) and gave up the most touchdowns of the group with six. Again, this is from a player who didn’t even play a majority of snaps for the Packers.
Green Bay may have believed a 24-year-old corner with speed and some size could become Sam Shields 2.0 or at least a poor man’s version. Instead, they got something more akin to Ahmad Carroll.
The fourth corner isn’t a position most teams have to worry much about, but given Green Bay’s injury history lately at the position, the Packers would be wise to seek an upgrade.
2017 stats: 1 start (12 games), 14 tackles, 1 pass defended
And that upgrade may be on the roster in the form of No. 41. Pipkins, an undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma State, showed signs of life in the preseason opener against the eventual Super Bowl champions, then disappeared.
He played mostly on special teams until late in the year with the Packers season all but over. Pipkins plays physically, attacking receivers, ball carriers and the ball in the air. That helps make up for some of his athletic limitations, allowing a 72.9 rating when targeted in limited duty.
Pipkins can do one thing really well already and that’s tackle. Given the state of the cornerback room right now, that’s more defined skill than plenty of the guys ahead of him currently on the roster. While we don’t know if he can be a rotation-level player, Pipkins showed enough to be relied upon as a capable special teams player and backup.
Others: Donatello Brown, Herb Waters
Overall Grade: C-
If the Packers cornerback group in 2017 were a meme, it would be the Mad Men “Not great, Bob!” gif.
This group couldn’t get off the field on third down or get stops in the red zone. In general, the actual production on the field just wasn’t good enough.
That said, there’s reason to be hopeful moving forward with Randall and King. Pipkins can be a nice player, and House back on a reasonable deal shouldn’t be a reason to pout for the Packers. If he’s CB3 with King taking a step forward and Randall in the slot in nickel, that has the makings of a solid secondary if deployed correctly.
They just weren’t healthy enough or deep enough last year to get anything more than a barely passing grade.