This is the eighth and final in a series of stories examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, leading up to the 2017 draft. The series concludes with the defensive backs.
GREEN BAY – Before the plane even left the runway for Jacksonville last September, the Packers already had a feeling Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could be in for a special year.
All summer long, Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy, General Manager Ted Thompson and even President/CEO Mark Murphy praised the potential of the 2014 first-round pick.
Their reasoning was sound. Clinton-Dix took his game to another level during his second NFL season, leading the defense with 100 tackles and grabbing his third interception in four career postseason games.
The 6-foot-1, 208-pound safety still exceeded every expectation in 2016 in playing every defensive snap, extending his streak to 55 consecutive games played.
In addition to his 80 tackles and a forced fumble, Clinton-Dix’s team-high five interceptions also tied for the league lead among safeties in the category.
The breakthrough season earned Clinton-Dix a second-team All-Pro selection and the opportunity to make his Pro Bowl debut in his hometown of Orlando in February.
Although a litany of injuries swept through the Packers’ cornerback room in 2016, the back end was relatively unharmed with Clinton-Dix and veteran Morgan Burnett starting in a combined 37 of a possible 38 contests.
Burnett, who missed Green Bay’s Week 3 game against Detroit with a quad injury, made a team-high 93 tackles with three sacks and two interceptions during what McCarthy termed his “best season” in a Packers’ uniform.
The eighth-year veteran has started every game he’s played for the Packers, but still saw his role expand considerably in 2016 as a hybrid linebacker in the nickel defense.
The mounting injuries at cornerback also forced defensive coordinator Dom Capers to occasionally play Burnett in the slot of the nickel and dime sub-packages.
Whenever Burnett moved into the box in the dime, undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice was called upon to replace the trusted veteran at safety. He finished with 26 tackles and a pass deflection in 258 regular-season snaps.
It’s a role Brice potentially could fill again in 2017 with the Packers planning to continue using Burnett in a hybrid capacity moving forward.
While the Packers return their two starting safeties for a third consecutive year, the cornerback situation remains fluid following the offseason departures of Sam Shields and Micah Hyde, who signed a free-agent contract with the Buffalo Bills.
The Packers still have options. They re-signed veteran Davon House in March and return third-year cornerbacks LaDarius Gunter, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
A 2011 fourth-round pick, House had 98 tackles, 25 pass deflections, two interceptions and two sacks before signing with the Jaguars in 2015. In his first season in Jacksonville, House reset the franchise record with 23 pass deflections in a season.
House played in all 16 games a year ago but fell out of the cornerback rotation after Jacksonville moved from a press-man defense to a more zone-based scheme. Within a week of his release, House re-signed with the Packers.
The Packers, who finished 31st in pass defense a year ago, had to dig deeper into their cornerback depth chart than anybody could have imagined in 2016.
On the heels of promising rookie seasons, Randall and Rollins missed a combined nine games in 2016 due to injury and played in other games at less than full strength.
Gunter, an undrafted rookie from that same rookie class, was a bright spot for the secondary. The Miami (Fla.) alumnus started 15 games for the Packers following the loss of Shields to a season-ending concussion. He posted 54 tackles, 12 deflections and two forced fumbles.
In addition to the injuries to Shields, Randall and Rollins, the Packers also lost veteran cornerback Demetri Goodson for the season after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Washington in November.
While it’s likely the Packers will add to their cornerback group through the draft – they’ve taken at least one in five of the last six drafts – they have a few prospects in the pipeline with Josh Hawkins and converted receiver Herb Waters.
Hawkins, one of five undrafted rookies to make the Packers’ initial 53-man roster a year ago, recorded five tackles and a pass deflection in 11 games.
QBs: Packers enter draft with two backups
RBs: Montgomery leads Packers' backfield into new era
WRs: Packers could add receiver early or late in draft
OL: Will Packers find a starting RG in this draft?
TEs: Offseason additions address need for Packers
DL: Unit packed with potential
LBs: Pass rush a draft priority for Packers