Rookie corners ahead of schedule
Last March, the tide turned in the Green Bay Packers' secondary.
General manager Ted Thompson took a gamble in allowing two homegrown talents, Tramon Williams and Davon House, to leave in favor of lucrative long-time deals elsewhere in the NFL.
It was a risk to be sure. Williams had been the face of the team’s secondary for years and House flashed enough in limited duty to entice Jacksonville to give him a four-year, $25 million contract with $10 million in guarantees.
For all the questions externally about what direction the secondary would take, there was confidence inside the organization that Green Bay would rebound. Coincidentally, the two individuals who perhaps had the most faith in the recovery were the same two the Packers needed to replace.
“When we said our goodbyes, I texted House and I texted T (Williams) and said, ‘I’m going to miss you, blah, blah, blah'” defensive back Micah Hyde recalled. “The first thing they said was, ‘Man, don’t even worry about us. You guys will be fine. You guys will get it all straightened out. The Packer organization is the best in the league. You guys will be fine.’
“Hearing that from them, guys who had been here for a while, there was no worry from us. We knew we were going to be fine. Whoever they brought in, we were going to have a good secondary.”
Thompson and the front office took the departures seriously. With a growing amount of spread offenses infiltrating the league, the Packers invested their first- and second-round picks into the cornerback position in selecting Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
The expectation wasn’t that the two rookies would play immediately, however. The Packers still had a returning core of veteran cornerbacks in Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Hyde. The hope was Randall and Rollins would have time to transition from unique college circumstances at their own pace.
Randall, who started his college career playing baseball, finished as a two-year starting safety at Arizona State. Rollins had only one season of collegiate football under his belt after playing basketball during his first four years at Miami (Ohio).
Rollins relied mainly on his instincts and athleticism to navigate his only season of college football, though his 72 tackles and seven interceptions were enough to earn him Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year.
“He’s a freak athlete,” Randall said of Rollins. “That’s just shows the credit of him just being a basketball player and him just being an athlete, and just learning the position. He’s a ball hawk. He is a guy who can find the ball. He just makes a lot of plays.”
Still, the NFL waits on no one and injuries happen. When Hyde was needed at safety with Morgan Burnett out with a calf strain for four of the first five games, it presented an opportunity for both Randall and Rollins to get on the field early this season.
In the past, the Packers weren't shy about sliding Williams inside in their sub-packages to accommodate a new cornerback. The rookies’ maturation has allowed Green Bay to do the same thing with Hayward. When the fourth-year cornerback moves inside, Randall takes his place on the perimeter. If they want to keep him outside, Rollins moves into the slot.
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt admittedly had his reservations about playing both so early, but the rookies have calmed those fears with their play.
“I wasn’t prepared to play them this early because you remember when we drafted them, young corners typically don’t play well,” Whitt said. “I think that speaks to them and the way that they have come in. Q is very mature. D is a football junkie. They have really attacked the scheme. They did some things in practice (Thursday) and I’m hoping it translates to the game.”
“They’re deserving of the playing time that they’re getting because I wasn’t planning on playing them this early.”
Randall’s fast start isn’t a complete surprise. While he was making a conversion from a college safety to NFL cornerback, he played in a lot of man-to-man situations with the Sun Devils in addition to playing cornerback for two years at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College.
He has played roughly 60 percent of the defensive snaps this season. The 5-foot-11, 196-pound cornerback has 12 tackles and five defended passes working on the boundary. Randall has been targeted often by opposing quarterbacks and met the challenge every time.
Randall has allowed only nine receptions on 24 targets, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Randall, we’ve had locked up in one-on-one situations and he’s responded to the call when they’ve tried to go after him,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "When you’re a rookie, people are going to go after you.”
Opportunities haven’t run aplenty for Rollins, but he has made the most of his limited reps. He needed only 16 snaps in Sunday’s 24-10 win over St. Louis to make a difference, grabbing a pair of interceptions. He returned the first for a 45-yard touchdown.
The picks were especially satisfying because he'd recently been getting his technique wrong on those two particular route concepts. Everything fell into place Sunday and he was rewarded with a pair of game-changing turnovers. Rollins played it so perfectly Whitt said he plans to put the film on his clinic tape.
Capers believes Rollins has the versatility to play inside, outside and even linebacker depending on the situation. They also had a good idea of his ball skills when he arrived for rookie orientation in May. What they didn’t realize is how good a tackler Rollins is.
“The thing that’s probably been the most impressive and that I didn’t know that I probably got wrong was how physical he is,” Whitt said. “Everybody knew he could get the ball. Everybody knew he had the balance. You can see that. I didn’t see the physicality that he plays with. He’s an impressive tackler.”
For all the changes, the Packers’ pass defense ranks fourth in the NFL (186.2 yards per game) entering Sunday’s game against San Diego thanks to a well-stocked secondary and a deep pass-rushing front. Together, they’ve combined for 20 sacks and eight interceptions, each good for second in the NFL.
The rookies’ reps could go down this week if Burnett returns from his calf strain, but the early stretch has reaffirmed to the Packers what they have in the two young cornerbacks. Their presence makes the secondary that much deeper.
“I think each one of us brings something to the table,” Hyde said. “We all want to start, but at the same time we know when our number is called you have to go out there and make plays. We’re just out there competing and we know with all of us out there competing, it’s going to be hard for offenses to game plan against us, especially with all the rotations we have and defenses we can run off of it.”
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