GREEN BAY — On the eve of their game against the Dallas Cowboys, the Green Bay Packers knew they would be without cornerbacks Sam Shields and Quinten Rollins, the latter having injured his groin during the team’s final practice earlier in the day.
But they had Damarious Randall, or at least a version of him, and the Packers expected a quarter or two — and hopefully more — before his own injured groin flared up. Randall would anchor the cornerback group with support from LaDarius Gunter and, if needed, the freshly activated Demetri Goodson.
The plan was moot by halftime, at which point Randall’s groin had given out and Goodson, who had just four practices to his name, played significant snaps opposite Gunter, who had a rough afternoon.
Flash forward to Wednesday, the eve of the Packers’ game against the Chicago Bears, and the situation appears even bleaker. Shields, the team’s true No. 1 corner, has been placed on injured reserve and will not return until the final weeks of the regular season, if at all. While Randall and Rollins, both still nursing their groin injuries, will be “hard-pressed” to play Thursday night, according to coach Mike McCarthy.
“Both those guys are working in the rehab room today,” McCarthy said.
With one fewer option than he had a week ago, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. may be forced to dig even deeper into his bench. Rookie Josh Hawkins, an undrafted free agent from East Carolina, did not play from scrimmage in the loss to the Cowboys but could have a role against the Bears. Hawkins was one of the surprises of training camp with his blazing speed (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and aggressiveness to the ball, but a poor first impression earlier this year relegated him to the bench the last two weeks.
“I just went back to the drawing board and regained all my focus and just continue to make my craft even better,” Hawkins said. “I’m ready whenever they need me. I’m just on standby right now. I’m waiting.”
Hawkins missed the first two weeks of the regular season with a hamstring injury suffered in the final exhibition game in Kansas City. He debuted in Week 3 against the Detroit Lions and, within his first few snaps, broke hard to the ball for an impressive pass breakup.
The wheels teetered shortly thereafter. Lined up on the right side, Hawkins found himself across from Lions’ receiver Marvin Jones. Hawkins was still communicating with his fellow defensive backs when the ball was snapped and he reacted a fraction late to Jones’ release.
Keenly, quarterback Matthew Stafford zipped a back-shoulder throw to Jones about 20 yards downfield. Though it appeared Jones’ momentum would carry him out of bounds, he nimbly regained his balance and took off up the sideline.
Hawkins had let up on the play after assuming Jones stepped on the sideline. He tried to make up ground and was promptly stiff-armed to the turf. Jones raced to the end zone for a 73-yard score.
After the game, Whitt had a simple message for his young corner, recalled by Hawkins earlier this week: “He was just saying finish to the ball, always finish. He said, ‘You’re a young player but you have the talent to be one of the best and play in this league.’ So that’s why I’m here. Just have to get the job done.”
But the mistake was a significant one, and Hawkins saw his playing time evaporate over the next two weeks. Whitt and defensive coordinator Dom Capers opted to use safety Morgan Burnett as a dime corner — and inserting rookie Kentrell Brice at safety — while keeping Hawkins on the bench
Thursday night, however, presents another chance, and Hawkins is hoping for an opportunity to amend his earlier mistake.
“He’s a young guy,” Capers said. “He’s like most young players. He’s going to grow with the more reps he gets.”