GREEN BAY - You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who has studied second-year cornerback Quinten Rollins during the first five days of Green Bay Packers training camp and doesn’t think he should be starting.
He has been that steady.
Rollins missed all but one off-season practice after banging his hand on someone’s helmet so hard it dislocated a finger on his right hand and caused the bone to break through the skin, but you’d never know it.
It was a setback that would stunt any second-year player’s development and the last thing he needed after playing solidly in 308 snaps the final nine games (four of them starts) of the year. He should have come roaring into the 2016 off-season.
Nevertheless, the coaches thought enough about Rollins that he got the nod ahead of incumbent starter Damarious Randall on the first day of training camp and has since rotated with Randall and another second-year player, LaDarius Gunter, at left corner and both slot positions.
If the season started tomorrow, all three would play, but you have to wonder if cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt might not be able to get himself to take Rollins off the field. No one has been around the ball more or, save for veteran Sam Shields, as steady in pass coverage.
“It’s fun,” Rollins said. “Everybody is out here trying to be the best person they can be. Instead of competing against each other, we’re competing against ourselves.
“We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard before you can even compare yourself to somebody else. So, it’s out here having fun, competing and trying to be the best you can.”
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As you might imagine, Rollins supposed nothing from Whitt’s decision to line him up with the No. 1 defense on the first day of camp. He said there was too much time left in camp for anyone to think they’ve got the edge on someone else at such a competitive position.
Randall, the team’s first-round pick last year, was groomed from the beginning to play at left corner and began starting there in Week 5. Rollins, who was selected in the second round, was used mostly at slot corner in training camp, but began expanding his role later in the year.
Because Rollins had only played one year of college football – he played four years of basketball at Miami (Ohio) before that – it was assumed he needed more time than Randall to adjust to the NFL. But Rollins has had no trouble picking up the system and has shown such fluidity with his movements that he is in the mix to be the starting left corner.
“What we’re probably going to do this year is a lot of match-ups,” Randall said when asked if the left corner position was his. “So, I mean, going in week in and week out, everything is going to change.
“It may be a guy that Gunter matches up better against, so at the end of the day we feel comfortable with our guys. When you have that in the secondary, that’s when you can do a lot of great, great things. You have different type of match-ups. Instead of the offense getting into the match-ups they want, we can match-up the way we want to.”
One of the advantages Randall has had over Rollins is his play on the ball. Randall had four interceptions and 16 passes defensed, including a pick in the end zone that prevented Arizona from taking the lead early in the fourth quarter of a divisional playoff game in January.
Rollins had two interceptions last year, but he dropped four and in the early days of camp he’s dropped several more. On Saturday, he allowed tight end Richard Rodgers to rip the ball out of his hands on what should have been an interception.
It has been the only part of his game that hasn’t been up to snuff. He understands that being new to the system isn’t an excuse anymore for not producing.
“We’re past that at this point, we’re past (knowing) the playbook,” he said. “It’s about finding our spots now, reading the offense more. Knowing the playbook, our alignment, our assignment, that’s all second nature now. So it’s putting ourselves in position to make plays.”
Rollins did that in another way during a practice last week when he stripped the ball out of the arms of receiver Davante Adams after a catch on a play that probably would have been ruled a fumble. He also had a sure sack off a slot blitz during a team period.
Earlier, two particular plays showed how natural he is at the position.
In defending a combination route where one receiver is trying to pick one of the cornerbacks, Rollins kept his eyes on his man without running into his teammate and executed the coverage perfectly. Whitt and some of Rollins’ teammates reacted with excitement.
“It’s just having good eyes, not being locked into one particular thing,” Rollins said. “You have to see the whole field, especially out here. You have a lot of bodies moving around, so you have to pick up and drop off and just know your stuff.”
Later in the same practice, Rollins dropped from the left corner position after showing possible man coverage and glided right into the lane where the quarterback wanted to throw, forcing him to go to his next read.
It was an excellent job of disguising his coverage.
“Whether I was doing that last year or not, if I’m doing it better this year, that’s a bonus,” Rollins said. “You’re always trying to get better at the little things and they lead to big things. Little things can lose a game, but little things are what win you games.”
The way Whitt has moved his second-year trio around in the early days of camp supports Randall’s assessment. Rollins has played left corner and both slot positions. Randall has played both outside positions and slot. Gunter has played left corner and slot.
For now, everyone is getting a crack at playing somewhere.
“We want to try to try as many guys as we can, play them in all different positions,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Obviously, when you get into the season, an injury here and there, the more a guy can do. It’s one of the things we think we do have with both Damarious and Quinten.
“You see them both working inside and outside. I think they’re very capable of playing either way. As we go through the preseason, we’ll probably try to get a certain number of reps with those guys playing different positions.”
For now, Rollins looks comfortable wherever he’s playing. He likes the prospect of playing in a secondary where the cornerbacks are interchangeable and expected to play equally well no matter where they line up.
“You have to stay sharp in both areas,” he said. “You can’t just over-rep in one area and then game-time comes and you have to take reps in another area and you’re not necessarily prepared. So, being interchangeable like that it’s going to help us in the long run.
“It’s exciting. You want to be held to a high standard. That’s how you get the best out of yourself.”