GREEN BAY — In the visitors’ locker room in Kansas City earlier this week, a bright-eyed Josh Hawkins reflected on his second interception of the exhibition season, a feat bettered by no one across the National Football League.
He caught the ball near the right sideline and took off up the field, sprinting toward a more permanent role with the Green Bay Packers.
“I definitely made a statement,” Hawkins said after the game. “I believe I made a good statement. I just wanted to start strong and finish strong.”
Two days later, the Packers made a statement of their own by granting Hawkins, who played collegiately at East Carolina, a spot on their 53-man roster. He was one of six cornerbacks retained by general manager Ted Thompson, and along with Makinton Dorleant, whose college career finished at Northern Iowa, he continued the trend of undrafted cornerbacks thriving in Green Bay.
“I’m just really proud of overcoming all the obstacles, all the obstacles that were thrown at me,” Hawkins told the Journal Sentinel on Saturday night. “Just walking on at East Carolina and, you know, overcoming that. Then being able to make some plays, earn a scholarship and not being drafted. Coming here, making plays, getting noticed, getting the guys’ respect. Just increasing and being able to be a great asset for the team and help the team with my ability and make plays.
“I don’t even know what to say because I’m so amazed right now. Man, it’s a blessing. I’m just excited. I’m ready for the next step. I’m ready to play with these guys, man, win a Super Bowl.”
At 5-10½ and 190 pounds, Hawkins brushes the lower limit for height as preferred by the Packers. But his remarkable athleticism — 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 40.5-inch vertical leap — dovetailed with obvious aggression as the Packers entrusted Hawkins with more and more responsibility.
By the end of training camp, Hawkins was earning reps on the majority of special teams units in addition to his primary job on defense.
“Everything I ever worked for, it came true,” Hawkins said.
The same could be said of Dorleant, whose collegiate career began at Maryland and continued at Northern Iowa, a school in the Football Championship Subdivision. He signed with the Packers shortly after the 2016 NFL draft and received a $5,000 signing bonus, the highest total distributed by the organization. But if it wasn't for a collegiate teammate, it's possible Dorleant might not have been discovered at all.
Deiondre' Hall, another cornerback from Northern Iowa, received a draftable grade from scouts across the country. He was taken in the fourth round by the Chicago Bears and, undoubtedly, helped attract eyeballs to Dorleant, who said he heard from about 15 teams immediately after the draft. A pre-draft visit with the Packers piqued his interest.
"I'm glad I was able to go out there (to visit)," Dorleant told the Journal Sentinel in May. "Even though they didn't draft me that showed mutual interest."
Once in Green Bay, Dorleant impressed with his physicality, tight coverage and penchant for pass breakups. Like Hawkins he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds, and the Packers quickly experimented with his value on special teams.
But a hamstring injury plunged Dorleant into uncertainty. He could not practice, could not play and watched from the sideline as two valuable game experiences slipped away. That he missed two weeks of camp and still made the roster demonstrates how impressive he was before getting hurt.
"I’m going to compete 100% of the time — not 90, not 99.9 — 100% of the time," Dorleant told the Journal Sentinel on Saturday night. "So any time I was out on the field I gave it my all. That’s something that stood out. Only playing two preseason games out of four, it was definitely on my mind. But those two games I played, I applied everything I could."
And Dorleant found a worthy competitor in Hawkins, whose two interceptions flashed the playmaking ability defensive coordinator Dom Capers craves. Dorleant and Hawkins waged an unspoken competition, and both wound up on Thompson's roster.
"We may not talk about it to each other, but secretly we were competing with each other just every single day in practice, every single time in the game, at everything we did in the weight room," Dorleant said. "Maybe he won’t say it, but I noticed it. I think it helped us both.
"His story, my story, him being a walk-on and me coming from D1-AA, and no one expecting a D1-AA guy to have the motor or be a ball player. I didn’t make any spectacular plays, but I played football. I think that helped us both since we first stepped foot into the organization."
But one dream faded as two others materialized, and Robertson Daniel found himself on the wrong side of Thompson’s axe. Daniel, who spent the majority of last season on the practice squad, was released Saturday afternoon.
Based on his comments after the final exhibition game, Thompson's decision may have stunned Daniel, who does not lack for confidence. He spoke without a hint of anxiety in Kansas City and told a reporter he had “really no worries" about his standing with the team.
When asked if he did enough to make the 53-man roster, Daniel again spoke with self-assurance.
“Yes, I think I did,” Daniel said. “The first three preseason games I think I did all right. This game I think I kind of stepped up and showed that I can play.”
Daniel played collegiately at BYU and signed with the Packers last September after going through training camp with the Raiders. His size (6-1, 203) and speed (4.46 seconds) are enticing and will likely earn him another job, perhaps on the practice squad of the Packers. (A league source said the Packers are interested in bringing him back if he clears waivers.) But Daniel’s inconsistency carried over from spring to summer, and impressive plays were wiped away by too many completions.
His day turned sour as Hawkins and Dorleant began to celebrate.
“Just knowing that I was a Packers after the 53 deadline was truly a blessing," Dorleant said. "I was really happy. The first thing I did was call my mom and call ones that were close to me and let them know. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, make a 53, and it happened today."