Over the next two weeks, we will take a look at each position group on the Packers and provide grades and insight on how they performed in the 2014 season. Today, we'll be looking at the cornerbacks. Follow along with all of our positional breakdowns here.
The addition of Julius Peppers and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the health of Clay Matthews fixed a lot of the holes in the Packer pass defense. While the team remained vulnerable to the run, pass defense was an absolute strength, and the Packer were built, in large part, to turn their opponents into one-dimensional passing teams. The cornerback position was as deep as it's ever been, featuring four starting-caliber players at the position, and at varying times, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, and Davon House all looked like All-Pros - and we won't even be touching on Micah Hyde until tomorrow with the safeties.
Injuries kept the unit from being truly elite, but they were still very good, and in this instance, their depth served them well. Casey Hayward was probably the standout from the group, proving that his breakout rookie campaign two years ago was no fluke, but everyone had a moment to shine.
16 games, 3 INT, 0 Sacks, 14 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery, 65 tackles, 12 assists
110 targets, 70 receptons allowed, 63.6%, 12.2 Y/R against, 379 YAC allowed, 10 TDs allowed, 106.5 QB rating allowed
In 2010 Tramon Williams put together a tremendous season. He was almost certainly one of the 10 best corners in football and capped off everything with a magnificent performance in Green Bay's most recent Super Bowl victory. In a game that featured Clay Matthews forcing a huge fumble and a ton of hard hits from Desmond Bishop, it was Williams who ended up with the highest Pro Football Focus score (3.8, second only to Aaron Rodgers' 9.0). He was targeted 9 times, only allowing 3 receptions for a measly 22 yards, and had the coverage on Mike Wallace on the Steelers' final play. He would have been a worthy MVP candidate if not for Rodgers brilliant game.
Since that time WIlliams has been closer to average. A chronic shoulder injury has limited his ability to be physical with receivers and while he remains capable of shutting almost anyone down in any given week, he's just as likely to spend a game getting manhandled, and his run defense remains a big issue. He does have a knack for showing up in big spots as he played brilliantly this season against New England as well as in the NFC Championship Game, and he strikes me as a smart player who is well aware of his strengths and limitations. He is still a valuable player and actually led the defense in snaps this year with 1032, but now on the wrong side of 30 and an unrestricted free agent he will likely move on in the offseason. He is underrated by many and should always be remembered as a Super Bowl hero.
14 games, 2 INT, 0 Sacks, 11 passes defended, 36 tackles, 8 assists.
86 targets, 44 receptions allowed, 51.2%, 15.9 Y/R against, 214 YAC allowed, 5 TDs allowed, 83.5 QB rating allowed
Shields started off the season strong, but two injuries seemed to derail his season. The first was a strange knee injury suffered in Week 6 against Miami. It was, in retrospect, a strange injury; the kind of non-contact knee-buckling that almost always seems to result in a torn ACL. With the aid of the bye Shields would only miss two games, but he would post negative Pro Football Focus grades in his next 6 games. That said, it's unclear that the knee is entirely to blame for this as he also suffered a concussion in Week 13 against the Patriots, and he played some of his worst football of the year in the weeks that followed. Shields' quickness and make-up speed seemed to suffer greatly. His run defense can sometimes be an issue as he is on the small side, but his struggles in pass coverage were uncharacteristic. It's likely that both injuries contributed to his slide, with the concussion exacerbating his physical limitations.
In some ways this is good news. Shields is still cap-friendly through the 2015 season and with an offseason to rehab it's fair to expect a full recovery. He was even showing some signs of his old self late in the season. In week 17 he held Calvin Johnson to 1 catch on 6 targets. Shields is one of Ted Thompson's greatest finds. He is not without his flaws, but when healthy he often shows elite coverage skills to this day, something that is not exactly common with undrafted rookies. He is still just 27 years old and if all goes well, should remain a fixture at cornerback for at least one more season.
13 games, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble, 10 passes defended, 27 tackles, 4 assists.
47 targets, 22 receptions allowed, 46.8%, 11.9 Y/R against, 76 YAC allowed, 3 TDs allowed, 76.6 QB rating allowed
I always think of House as one of the new guys even though he will be 26 next season, he's been with the team for 4 seasons, and he is about to be an unrestricted free agent. Davon House is, in many ways, the corner everyone is looking for. He has rare size for the position while still boasting good speed. He should be a force in both the running game and passing game, and it seems natural to pencil him in as the heir apparent to Tramon Williams, assuming the Packers can work out a new deal.
All of that said, House has merely been solid when he's been on the field and, as with Tramon Williams, shoulder problems are to blame. He suffered a dislocation in 2012 but gutted through 9 games. The injury required offseason surgery, and even though everything was allegedly back to normal, House often struggled in 2013, though he did at least play 16 games. Two years removed from surgery, many thought he would take a giant step forward, and while he was never really bad (except against New Orleans), he also failed to light the world on fire. In week 14 he suffered a fractured scapula against Atlanta which basically ended his season (though he would play a bit on Special Teams in the playoffs).
House is still young and still unproven, and I think the coaching staff believes in him. While some of his issues have been injury-related, he's also rarely played in the starter's role, and consistent snaps in one position might bring about the big leap that everyone has been expecting. If there is a silver lining to all of the injuries it's that he may be cheaper to re-sign as a result.
16 games, 3 INT, 2 fumble recoveries, 8 passes defended, 37 tackles, 10 assists.
32 targets, 21 receptions allowed, 65.6%, 12.2 Y/R against, 142 YAC allowed, 2 TDs allowed, 72.0 QB rating allowed
Hayward made his reputation on 6 interceptions his rookie season. Occasionally a DB will luck into a bunch of interceptions and build a strong undeserved reputation on it, like DeAngelo Hall. Fortunately there is more than sizzle to Hayward's steak. Hamstring injuries cost him most of 2013 but he returned in 2014 with a vengeance. Hayward is not a liability; instead, he absolutely excels in pass coverage. Tramon Williams had the 2nd-highest pass coverage grade on the team according to Pro Football Focus, with a +2.7. Hayward had an +8.7. This is not a fluke. Hayward has now consistently shown elite read and react skills, excellent closing speed, and great hands. He's also a very smart player to boot. After Mike Daniels, it is entirely possible that he was the team's most valuable defensive player even though he spent much of his time defending the slot in the dime package
Hayward is signed through 2015, is 25 years old, and is a good bet to see an extension before he hits free agency. He is just entering his prime and has the talent to be a perennial All-Pro if he stays healthy. When you take a corner in the 2nd round, this is exactly what you're hoping for.
While Bush has had his moments in the secondary, including a crucial interception in the Super Bowl, he never really panned out as a corner. He was, in his younger days an acceptable backup, and then an acceptable backup's backup. At this point he's merely a special teams ace. Not bad for an undrafted free agent finishing his ninth year on the team.
Bush is the prototypical intangibles guy. Good in the clubhouse, plays where he's asked to play, when he's asked to play, with maximum effort. He's never been a great player, but he has been a good one. He is now an unrestricted free agent and will turn 31 next season. If he moves on, he'll leave a better legacy than most.
The 6th round pick out of Baylor saw all of his time on special teams. He is the only player ever to start an NCAA Tournament basketball game and a BCS bowl game. At least we know he's athletic.
I suspect that if everyone had been healthy (or at least healthier), this group was capable of playing A+ ball. It's a testament to both Ted Thompson and Dom Capers that they were as well-equipped as the position as they were. It is actually a little frustrating to look at the pre- and post-injury splits for Sam Shields and think about what might have been.
Still this was a good, if not great season. The corners were a strength on a greatly improved defense, and even if they only manage to re-sign one of House or Williams, they are set up well for future success.