GREEN BAY — After a week of training camp, the only consistency about the Green Bay Packers' cornerback combinations has been the pattern of inconsistency. Players have shuffled through positions like a game of musical chairs — outside to inside, inside to outside — as the coaches assess their versatility.
“It’s training camp,” Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said Tuesday. “Trying to figure out who can play where.”
And while it was not surprising to see Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall split time between the perimeter and the slot, especially after Randall asked to move inside last year, it was with widened eyes that reporters noticed LaDarius Gunter there, too.
At 6-1½ and 200 pounds, Gunter made the team last season as an undrafted free agent from Miami. He aggravated receivers with his long arms and forceful punch, the result of which was a penchant for aggressive man coverage. That he intercepted quarterback Aaron Rodgers on more than one occasion surely improved his chances.
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But Gunter spent his time as a perimeter corner last season, just as Randall and Sam Shields lined up almost exclusively outside. Any playing time he might have earned on the interior — perhaps behind the closed doors of practice — likely invoked but a fraction of his reps at most.
Shifting to the slot, where he has been aligned with some consistency so far in camp, represented the biggest change in Gunter’s game entering 2016, according to Whitt.
“I didn’t think he would play as well inside as he has,” Whitt said. “I’ve been really, really pleased with his understanding of the passing routes and working with the backers and safeties. I think he’s done an outstanding job of that.”
And Gunter has flashed at times throughout camp. He keenly deflected a pass intended for wideout Geronimo Allison during the team’s second practice. He has earned significant time in the nickel package to allow either Randall or Rollins the chance to shift inside.
He also was beaten badly by receiver Jared Abbrederis on a jab step that sent Gunter the wrong direction. Like Whitt said, it’s training camp.
“The goal of camp is to try to see if guys can handle more than one position,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “If they can, their stock obviously goes up. We talk about that with the defense all the time, that if a guy can play multiple positions, that’s good for them. That’s good for us because as we go through the course of the season from week to week, what you don’t want is to where you have to throw half your game plan out because you’ve got one injury.
“So that’s all the possibilities that we try to work our way now as we put the defenses in and start to play the preseason games. You could see guys work two or three different positions so we can see how they handle it, can they still play with the same kind of speed? You don’t want to ask too much of them when you start to get into the real competition.”
Whitt’s belief in Gunter, and by extension the organization’s belief, dates back to a strong point early last season prior to a game against the San Diego Chargers. Whitt recognized that Gunter, who until that week had played just five snaps from scrimmage, was potentially better suited to handle the Chargers’ receivers than some of his regular starters.
“I was scared to do it,” Whitt said last season. “I knew he would probably match up well against those receivers, and I didn't do it.
“So that's on me, because I have to do what I think is right. I didn't do it. I get paid pretty good money to make those decisions, but I didn't get it done. I kick myself for that.”
With Casey Hayward gone through free agency and Demetri Goodson suspended for the first four games, the possibility of a roster spot and legitimate playing time both are attainable for Gunter. If the season began today, he likely would be the fourth cornerback behind Shields, Randall and Rollins, with the possibility of additional playing time based on matchups.
In the words of Capers: Gunter’s stock is rising.
“(Gunter) is a pro,” Whitt said. “He works at this. He’s probably as hard-working a guy as I have in the room. He’s doing well.”