It was expected the selection of Damarious Randall in the first round of the NFL draft and Quinten Rollins in the second would intensify the Green Bay Packers’ cornerback competition.
Throw in the emergence of undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter and suddenly a position once considered thin after the departure of Tramon Williams and Davon House is now plush with prospects contending for playing time.
Only Sam Shields’ position on the boundary is secure. The rest are fighting for roles in the starting base, nickel and dime subpackages. The next three preseason games and three remaining public practices will go a long way in determining who plays and who sits in the Packers’ opener against Chicago on Sept. 13.
Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde have the best claim. The two veterans have seen a lot of action early in their careers, but Randall, Rollins and Gunter all possess talent that may be difficult to keep off the field.
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All three remain in the conversation going into Sunday’s second preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I think they’re all good athletes,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think they’ve been fairly consistent in their coverage through practice. … This week will be the biggest challenge we’ve had because this group of receivers we’re playing against. They’ve got a lot of speed, so it’ll be interesting to see how they do there.
“Every step, those guys have been working hard. There have been a lot of contested balls on the practice field. That’s always an encouraging sign.”
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt gave each rookie a chance to run with the starting defense this week in practice with Hayward (quad) sitting out of Monday’s practice and Hyde playing safety on Wednesday and Thursday with Morgan Burnett absent for personal reasons.
The Packers were missing four defensive backs against the Patriots, including Randall (groin). Gunter and Rollins entered the game after Shields and Hayward departed after three series and the rookies wound up leading the defense with 50 and 49 snaps, respectively.
Both made the most of the opportunity. Gunter had three tackles and picked off Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the third quarter. Rollins nearly had two interceptions of his own, but dropped both. Only credited with two pass deflections, Whitt had Rollins down for four plays where he forced an incompletion.
All that was missing was the turnovers, which Rollins still isn’t happy about. Whitt agrees he should be upset about the missed opportunities. Catching the ball is not optional in the Packers’ defense. His coach cautions: “If he doesn’t catch it, somebody will.”
Still, the former point guard has made the conversion to the NFL look smoother than it probably should be considering he played only one year of football at Miami-Ohio. Now, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound cornerback is getting a chance to rotate inside and outside with the starting defense.
“We had a test yesterday and he’s being asked to know corner, nickel and I told him to start learning dime,” Whitt said. “He was really clean with it. I’ve been blown away, with the limited football background that he has, how much he really retains. He only makes one mistake more than once and he better stop making that one (dropped passes), but other than that one thing he hasn’t understood yet, he does a really nice job. I couldn’t be happier with the way he retains things other than one thing right now.”
Randall (5-11, 196) has been impressive when healthy. His natural athleticism, ability and experience covering in man-to-man situations has helped his transition from a safety at Arizona State to playing outside. After returning to practice this week, Randall should get plenty of work against the Steelers.
Gunter didn’t test as well as Randall and Rollins, but has shined since the start of organized team activities. Slow times in the 40-yard dash and shuttles turned away a lot of NFL teams, but Green Bay still gave him a $5,000 signing bonus and opportunity to compete in the team’s secondary.
The 6-foot-2, 201-pound cornerback brings physicality to the position. At New England, Gunter sat down on Josh Boyce’s curl route and quickly jarred Garoppolo’s pass free. However, it was how he tracked and caught the flash of the ball after initial contact that impressed Whitt the most.
Gunter’s makeup reminds Hayward a lot of House, who had 84 tackles and 25 pass deflections in four seasons before signing a four-year, $25 million deal with Jacksonville in March.
“He’s long,” Hayward said. “He kind of reminds me of House a little bit. He’s long. His press game is unique and very raw that not many people can read him. Not even some of our guys. When he’s locked on, he makes it hard on receivers.”
Whitt knows everyone is waiting for Gunter to give up a big play. It would validate many team’s pre-draft notions that his 4.69-second time in the 40-yard dash will be too much to overcome at the top level.
In Whitt’s mind, every cornerback is going to get beat occasionally. To minimize explosive plays, you must play to your strengths when defending vertical balls. Shields does it with his speed. Hayward does it with his eyes and instincts.
Gunter’s strength is how he controls his hands and disrupts receivers at the line to throw off the timing of their route. It was traits he showed, but didn’t quite perfect during his 30 starts at Miami.
“Everybody I know is waiting for him to get beat over the top, so they can say he can’t run,” Whitt said. “That’s how he plays vertical balls. As long as you get it played, it doesn’t matter necessarily how fast you are. You use your strength to get it defended, but people are going to say if he does give up one he’s not fast enough. What’s the excuse for the 4.3 guys who give them up? They are fast enough.”
The entire secondary will be tested against the Steelers, who feature a formidable trio of receivers in Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant. Although Brown led the NFL in receiving last year (129-1,698-13), it was Bryant who burned House for a 44-yard touchdown last week against the Jaguars.
It’s the preseason, but there’s plenty on the line. Hayward laughs when admitting it’s Ben Roethlisberger’s job to make Green Bay’s secondary “look bad.” Regardless of who is on the field, the cornerbacks understand you can’t let up. There’s always another player lurking.
Things look different in the Packers’ cornerbacks room these days. Williams, House and Jarrett Bush combined for 21 NFL seasons. The 10 cornerbacks currently under contract combine for only 11.
Whatever this year’s secondary might lack in experience, however, the Packers hope to make up for in athleticism. Three weeks into training camp, the rookies have shown plenty of that.
“I think going back last year we might have had a little bit more depth, especially experience-wise,” Hayward said. “That’s why these preseason games are very important not only for myself and Sam, but for these young guys, as well. We have to get a feeling for each other. Those guys have been playing with each other for years and years.
“We’re going to be kind of fresh. We have to get to that feeling with the safeties as well that we can trust each other. I think we’re building that.”
—firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.