This is the seventh in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to training camp. The series continues with the defensive backs.
GREEN BAY – Remarkably, the Packers have no shortage of talent at the cornerback position despite losing three veterans to free agency over the last two years.
Just how Dom Capers will use all the talent at his disposal, and who will line up where, is the storyline to watch.
Former first- and second-round draft picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, plus undrafted LaDarius Gunter, have essentially replaced Tramon Williams, Davon House and Casey Hayward on the depth chart.
With Rollins sidelined this spring by a dislocated finger, Randall got a lot of work in the slot during OTAs, with Gunter lining up outside opposite veteran leader Sam Shields. Randall is a likely starter outside in the base defense, but with a healthy Rollins plus hybrid slot corner/safety Micah Hyde, Capers could come up with multiple nickel and dime combinations.
Shields is the most seasoned pro, and the Packers’ defense took a turn for the worse when he missed two different stretches of games last year. Staying healthy is his first priority, and he has never shied away from taking on the opposition’s toughest assignment.
Randall and Rollins each made a splash as rookies with a pick-six and other notable plays, such as Randall’s fourth-down deflection to preserve the win over San Diego, and Gunter held up well when thrown into duty at Washington in the wild-card playoff. Under the tutelage of position coach Joe Whitt Jr., all three proved they belong and have plenty of upside as they head into their second years.
Former sixth-round pick Demetri Goodson, primarily a special-teams contributor his first two seasons, is suspended for the first four games of the year, which could open the door to a roster spot for another young prospect.
Practice-squad holdover Robertson Daniel is back with a year of scheme knowledge, while of the three undrafted rookies brought in this year – Northern Iowa’s Makinton Dorleant, East Carolina’s Josh Hawkins and Massachusetts’ Randall Jette – Dorleant stood out the most during spring workouts.
At safety, the Packers believe they are developing one of the top starting tandems in the league in Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Interchangeable as far as playing centerfield vs. loading the box, the two know the defense inside and out, communicate well and keep their teammates on the same page.
All that’s needed for greater outside recognition to come their way are more turnover plays. Clinton-Dix, the 2014 first-round pick, had the pair’s three interceptions last year (two regular season, one playoffs), and they combined for three forced fumbles and one recovery. If Capers’ defense is to return to its ball-hawking ways of 2009-11, when it was amongst the league leaders in takeaways, Burnett and Clinton-Dix might be the key.
Hyde is likely to be the first safety off the bench if needed, and veteran special-teams ace Chris Banjo performed admirably in the first half of last season when pressed into back-end duty.
The young safeties fighting for roster spots include Jermaine Whitehead, who spent his rookie season last year with San Francisco and Baltimore, plus undrafted rookies Marwin Evans of Utah State and Kentrell Brice of Louisiana Tech.
Evans is a Wisconsin native who began humbly at two community colleges before making his way into the Division I college ranks.
At both cornerback and safety, any of the young prospects who stand out on special teams during camp and the preseason will give themselves a chance. Playing time on defense could be difficult to come by, though, after the way the Packers reinforced their secondary through the 2014-15 drafts and are seeing those players come into their own.
(Update: The Packers signed CB Warren Gatewood of Alcorn State shortly after this posting. The announcement is right here.)
Countdown to Camp series
QB: It’s Hundley’s time to shine
RB: Spotlight remains on Lacy
WR/TE: No. 3 receiver the competition to watch
OL: Offensive line depth stands out
DL: Prospects must produce on defensive line
LB: Packers have options at linebacker across the board