The Green Bay Packers came into this season incredibly excited about the back end of their defense.
They held the belief they were both deep and talented.
Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins both showed promise as rookies. They had high draft pedigrees as first and second round picks.
With Joe Whitt coaching them, the belief was they were only going to get better in their second year.
Sam Shields returned as the team’s top cover man. He was a good option when he was healthy to shadow the opposing team’s top wide receiver.
They were so confident in their cornerbacks that they were willing to let Casey Hayward walk away with minimal resistance.
The belief was that they finally had a defense to pair with a high-flying offense to get them back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2010.
Things did not go according to plan. Instead of being one of the strengths of the team, cornerback was arguably the biggest reason the Packers did not reach the Super Bowl.
Sam Shields was unavailable for almost the entire season with a concussion that he suffered in the season opener.
At the time, the injury was seen as an opportunity for Randall and Rollins to grow up fast. It was also an injury that was seen as sustainable because of the depth the Packers theoretically had in the secondary.
Instead it turned out to be a similar injury to the one the wide receiver corps suffered with Jordy Nelson a season ago.
Nelson was seen as a big loss, but one that could be overcome because of the depth the team had at his position. Instead of rising to the challenge, the Packers’ receivers wilted because they were put in positions they were not ready to perform in.
In 2016, cornerback was a similar situation. Randall and Rollins were put in positions they were not ready to be in.
Damarious Randall was the leader in the clubhouse for most disappointing player in 2016. There is a litany of reasons for that. He performed poorly before battling through injuries that made his performance worse.
Even before the injuries that he suffered throughout the year, he looked nothing like the player that got the Packers excited for the 2016 season.
He was too soft in man, indecisive in zone. He did not tackle well. If the Packers had any other options it’s possible that Randall could have found himself on the bench.
A variety of injuries to his teammates kept him on the field. By the end of the year, Randall compared himself to Davante Adams in 2015.
Randall suffered injuries that caused him to struggle like Adams did after a solid rookie season. The Packers have to hope Randall can bounce back like Adams did in 2016.
Rollins was not too far behind Randall in terms of disappointing the team.
He showed potential in spurts during his rookie campaign. He showed athleticism that was tantalizing for a slot corner.
He was decisive and a sound tackler once a receiver got the ball in their hands.
In 2016 he resembled nothing of the sort. He was indecisive and not nearly as physical at the line of scrimmage. He was caught flat-footed far too often, which caused him to get beat.
He too suffered through injuries that hampered him through his sophomore slump.
Ultimately the injuries and inconsistent play caused Randall and Rollins to give way to Ladarius Gunter as the team’s top cornerback.
Gunter battled through the year all things considered, but was embarrassed in the team’s final two playoff games.
Ultimately the season ended with the Packers having major questions about the future of their defensive backfield. A season with optimism ended with bitter disappointment.
Shields was released following his concussion. That means the players who ended the season on the field are the only ones left in the cornerback room.
The Packers could be faced with the possibility of having to replace Shields with a veteran or having to spend another high draft pick.
That would have been unheard of considering how Rollins and Randall played in their rookie campaigns.
The Packers cannot afford to give up on Rollins or Randall yet, but they also cannot afford to have them as their only options going into 2017.
It’s an interesting situation they face going into another season in which they hope to compete for another Super Bowl.