This story has been updated to correct Packers linebacker Carl Bradford's first name.
FOXBORO, Mass. — The Green Bay Packers’ first live audition of their rookie cornerbacks was a good one and has to leave them feeling optimistic about their immediate and longer-term futures at that key position group.
That’s the position where the Packers took their biggest personnel hit in the offseason when general manager Ted Thompson determined he didn’t have the cap room and budget to retain Tramon Williams (Cleveland) and Davon House (Jacksonville), who left in free agency.
One of the players Thompson drafted to help replace them, first-round pick Damarious Randall, didn’t even make the trip to play against the New England Patriots on Thursday night because of a groin injury. But second-round pick Quinten Rollins and undrafted rookie Ladarius Gunter did, and both had good nights, especially Rollins, who was one of the stars of the Packers’ 22-11 win at Gillett Stadium.
You don’t want to overstate matters based only on a preseason game, and the Patriots didn’t play any of their top three receivers: Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. By the time Rollins got on the field after the starters went to the bench, Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski also was done for the night, as of course, was quarterback Tom Brady, one of the game’s all-time greats. So the Patriots’ top receiver was Josh Boyce, a fourth-round pick in 2013 with great speed (4.38-second 40) but who was on the practice squad most of last season. And their quarterback was second-year pro Jimmy Garoppolo.
Still, there’s no denying Rollins’ eye-catching play. In a stretch of six snaps in the second quarter, he made four good plays, including breaking up three passes. On a couple of them he showed the natural body awareness and ball skills that convinced the Packers to draft him so high even though he was a four-year college basketball player who didn’t return to football until his fifth year at Miami (Ohio).
Right now it’s a tossup on whether Randall or Rollins will be the fourth cornerback in the Packers’ dime defense – Randall handled that role in practice until his injury this week. But Rollins’ performance Thursday night jumped off the field and puts him strongly in the running. And though Casey Hayward and nickel back Micah Hyde remain the likely Nos. 2 and 3 cornerbacks, Rollins’ play Thursday night and Randall’s in camp to date have been good enough to suggest they can push for a bigger role if either of the veterans falters.
Rollins had three pass breakups, all against Boyce. On one fade-type throw he recovered at the last second and poked the ball out of Boyce’s grasp. On the next play Rollins nearly intercepted a slightly underthrown deep ball by Garoppolo. And on the third, Rollins’ body control and ball skill really stood out. Garoppolo tried to hit Boyce on another go route in the end zone for what would have been a 31-yard touchdown, but Rollins turned, found the ball, kept his balance while backpedaling and nearly caught that one too.
It’s the kind of play where many cornerbacks end up playing smaller than they are because they’re disoriented or off balance as they search for the ball. But Rollins looked like a natural while tracking the ball the while on the move.
He also had a big hit during that six-play sequence when he took out Patriots running back James White while breaking up a swing pass.
Gunter, the undrafted rookie who started shooting up the depth chart in offseason practices, didn’t make as many plays as Rollins, but he made the biggest one when he intercepted Garoppolo in the second quarter. On that play Gunter played physically against Boyce and basically overpowered him as the ball arrived.
So yeah, it’s just one preseason game. But Thursday night while playing against another team, the Packers looked like they have the makings for another deep group of cornerbacks despite the two personnel losses in the offseason. Even if the rookies are likely to take their share of lumps along the way, all three have shown the ability to play the ball, which is what that position is all about.
“We’re getting our hands on a lot of balls,” coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. “You can see it in practice. As a secondary, it’s happening a lot more this year than in prior years. You can see it in the training camp practices and I thought it definitely carried over tonight.”
Here’s a quick look at how a few other young players fared in extended playing time Thursday night:
■ Outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott flashed again, just like he did last year in the preseason. He led the team with seven tackles, and had two good speed rushes that beat tackle Chris Barker – one for half a sack that he shared with Datone Jones, and the other for a pressure. Elliott also tackled White for a one-yard loss.
■ Andy Mulumba, who started at outside linebacker because Nick Perry and Mike Neal did not make the trip, had a sack on a play in which he lined up as an inside linebacker.
■ Inside linebacker Carl Bradford was overmatched playing in space in the first half when White caught a checkdown pass and juked him in the open field for a 17-yard gain. Bradford did have a sack on an inside blitz on a fourth-and-3 in the third quarter.
■ Receiver Myles White has made a strong bid for a job as the No. 5 or 6 receiver early in training camp but had two clear drops Thursday night.