When Sam Shields was packing up his locker in January following the Green Bay Packers’ postseason exit, he knew he’d be putting everything back into his cubbyhole four months later. As Shields looked to his right and saw Tramon Williams and Davon House gathering their belongings at the time, he assumed that at least one of those cornerbacks would be back with him when players reported for organized team activities in spring.
Instead, by the time OTAs began, Shields realized that being 27 years old meant he was now the oldest player the Packers have at cornerback. Williams, who had been the veteran of the secondary, signed with the Cleveland Browns. House, who entered the NFL one year after Shields, went 1,300 miles south to try to help in the rebuilding process of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In typical Ted Thompson fashion, Green Bay replaced Williams and House with younger, cheaper options by drafting Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in the first two rounds.
As practices got under way, Shields watched the new-look cornerback group work on the field and wasn’t discouraged by the results. In fact, Shields’ impression was quite the opposite.
"I think it’s better," Shields said of the Packers’ 2015 cornerbacks compared to in 2014. "There’s a lot more talent in there."
Swapping out 30 career interceptions and 140 passes defensed between Williams and House for two rookies would typically represent a step down, at least temporarily. That would seem especially true considering Rollins spent his first four years of college playing basketball, and Randall initially chose baseball over football.
The culture that cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has created, though, is one of competition. He has instilled the idea that the best players will play, regardless of contracts or draft status. And that’s part of the reason for Shields being so encouraged by the roster turnover at the position.
"That one position, everybody wants it, and it’s open," Shields said of the starting spot that had belonged to Williams. "Not just that position; my position, too. I have to keep doing what I have to do, because somebody could take mine, too. A thing like that is, everybody is going to be a big competition. Whoever wants it."
However, Whitt isn’t feeling the same amount of optimism right now as Shields. Of the 10 players that Whitt currently has in his room, only two of them (Shields and Casey Hayward) have ever played a regular-season snap at outside cornerback in the NFL.
"I have a bunch of guys that don’t know how to play football right now, and we have to figure out how to get them to play in the NFL," Whitt said.
Whitt noted that defensive back Micah Hyde is "a backup safety" who is "primarily" with safeties coach Darren Perry. Whitt focuses on the players who are being considered at outside cornerback, a list that Hyde is not a part of.
Whitt recently had a heated exchange with his young, relatively inexperienced group of cornerbacks. He wanted to make sure he got his point across about expectations.
"I’m not trying to win football games, OK? I’m trying to get a group of men ready to go after a championship," Whitt said. "And in that mindset, we’re not where we need to be. If we’re going to go out there right now, they can play well. I’m not trying to play well. I’m trying to have a unit that’s a top-five unit in the league.
"Play like we played when we did win the Super Bowl (in the 2010 season). Play like we played when we had the defensive player of the league (Charles Woodson), when we led the league in interceptions (in 2009 and 2011). That’s what I’m looking for.
"Until we play that way, I’m really not going to be happy with what I see until we get that level of play. That’s what I’m looking for. They understand that. It’s a group that’s going to go get it. I don’t know who the guys are going to be that are going to do it, but there’s somebody in that room, and I’m confident that the men that will get it done are in that room. I just don’t know who they are right now."
Whitt added that if rookies such as Randall and Rollins didn’t understand how high his expectations were before, it became loud and clear after a confrontation early in OTAs.
"I lost my mind in there," Whitt said. "They have a firm understanding of what I’m looking for."
Second-year player Demetri Goodson, who didn’t earn himself any defensive snaps as a rookie, said Whitt is "super hard" on everybody, but described him as "a great, great coach."
Whitt isn’t normally the type of coach to yell, and his current top players haven’t been that vocal throughout their careers.
"That’s something that’s hard for me," Shields said. "I try my best. I do get in the young guys’ head and tell them what’s wrong and what’s right, things like that. And they do listen. That’s a good thing."
Hayward is "about the same" in terms of speaking up to the group, according to Shields, who insisted "it’s not being loud" that matters. Shields knows it’s on him now, though, to let his voice be heard.
"I’ve always been ready for this position," Shields said. "I didn’t know it was coming. We lost two wonderful guys (in Williams and House). I’m the oldest of the group, so I have to step up and play that role."
Hayward will be looking to earn a new contract next offseason as he plays out the final year of his rookie deal, Randall and Rollins will just be getting their feet wet in the NFL, Goodson’s future is still very much in to-be-determined mode, and undrafted rookies like Ladarius Gunter and Bernard Blake have a ton to learn.
It puts a lot on Whitt’s plate to make sure they all stay on the same page. It’s a group that also has to improve quickly if Green Bay’s cornerbacks are going to be ready for the regular season in early September.
"We have an immense amount of work to do," Whitt said. "That’s the only thing I think about right now. We have a lot to work through."