No, I'm Not Concerned About the Packers Cornerbacks

After the departure of safety Morgan Burnett to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Packers secondary doesn’t have the name recognition on the roster that it used to:

On Thursday, the Packers agreed to a two-year deal with cornerback Tramon Williams. Now in his mid-30's, Williams has continued to play at a high-level since leaving Green Bay and was the league's best remaining free agent cornerback, per Pro Football Focus.

Even with Williams in the fold, I’m still not concerned about the team’s secondary in 2018.

Betting on the unknown and unproven

The Packers are gambling on their young safeties Josh Jones, Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans to develop and contribute meaningfully on defense. The trio will fill the role left by Burnett, a role that Jon discussed as a complicated one.

Marwin Evans’ athleticism is his biggest strength. A 42-inch vertical jump at his pro day was the best mark of any rookie at the 2016 combine, and he also runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds.

Playing mostly special teams as a rookie, Evans ascended in his second season as one of the league’s best defenders in the preseason. He failed to make much of an impression on defense during the 2017 regular season, however, notching only 12 tackles in nearly 150 snaps.

A season-ending injury to Kentrell Brice in early November has pushed the safety out of the minds of many fans. As recent as fourteen months ago, however, Bob McGinn suggested the hard-hitting, athletic Brice had a chance to be the team’s best player from the 2016 rookie class.

Brice’s lone moment in the spotlight came during a playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys in his rookie season, when he dropped an easy interception near the goal line:

While our readers were sour on Brice’s 2017 performance, he did prove to be a valuable contributor before his season-ending ankle injury.

Finally, Josh Jones figures to be the favorite to see the most playing time at safety in 2018. Drafted in the second round in 2017, Jones played nearly every position on defense in college and as a rookie.

His rookie season was inconsistent, but he showed flashes of brilliance. His breakout performance in Week 3 against the Bengals – 11 tackles and two sacks – was a brief flash of what we may expect from him in the scheme of new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

How much do you trust Mike Pettine?

My comfort level with the secondary lies in the trust I have in new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. In his introductory press conference, Pettine was asked why his defenses have historically been better against the pass than the run.

“Because we prioritize it,” Pettine said. “I think you have to be sound against the run, but you lose a heck of a lot faster when you're giving up chunks in the pass game.”

Pettine isn’t giving away any defensive secrets here, but he’s said all the right things so far.

In five years as a defensive coordinator, the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets were in the top six in passing yards allowed every season. To boot, here’s a list of any cornerbacks who started more than eight games for Pettine as defensive coordinator:

  • Darrelle Revis - 2009, 2010, 2011
  • Lito Sheppard - 2009
  • Antonio Cromartie - 2010, 2011, 2012
  • Kyle Wilson - 2012
  • Aaron Williams - 2013
  • Leodis McKelvin - 2013
  • Stephon Gilmore - 2013

With the exception of Darrelle Revis, the only Jets defender who made a Pro Bowl during Pettine’s time was Antonio Cromartie in 2012. Those three straight top-line defenses in New York were strung together with no high-profile, high-paid talent.

Playing with the hand you’re dealt

The Packers defense in 2018 will be built around the strength of their defensive line and pass rushers. Muhammad Wilkerson, Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark are all top-tier lineman, and Clay Matthews paired with Nick Perry can rush the quarterback at a high-level.

Even the secondary in its current state has significant talent. Cornerback Kevin King played well in his rookie year despite the use of one arm because of a labrum injury. Passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. said “[you] haven’t really seen the real Kevin King yet” when discussing the corner’s rookie year.

It’s foolish, too, to discredit completely the talent of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Though he certainly had a disappointing 2017 season, we know at least one defender claimed Capers’ scheme was “predictable.”

Perhaps Clinton-Dix felt similarly, and perhaps that impacted his play. No matter, it’s up to Pettine and Whitt to stir within the safety the competitive fire to return to his former self.

To say that Green Bay’s defense should expect to be as lousy as it has been in the past is disrespectful to the new coaching staff and the young players who deserve a chance to prove their potential.

If the team manages to snag another veteran corner like Davon House and uses the draft to bolster the position, it’s likely Pettine may have the most defensive talent he’s ever had as a coordinator. And if that’s true, the rest of the league will be talking about the Packers defense.