GREEN BAY – They chat sometimes, the Green Bay Packers receiver who rebuilt his career last year, and the cornerback who must do the same this season.
Not just on the practice field, though Davante Adams and Damarious Randall bump into each other plenty there, too. In one-on-one drills, Randall will find himself lined up against Adams, teammates competing to make each other better.
“I feel like he definitely has his mind right,” Adams said.
It’s their encounters away from work, when neither are out on Clarke Hinkle Field, that might be even more beneficial.
A year ago, Adams was in the same situation Randall faces this offseason. Well, maybe not the exact same. The Packers did not use their first pick to draft a receiver last year, the way they did at cornerback this spring. In 2016, they did not draft a receiver until the fifth round. Trevor Davis presented no threat to Adams’ job.
This spring, the Packers drafted Kevin King with their first pick, then doubled down with another defensive back (safety Josh Jones) later in the second round. The draft put Randall on notice: improve or get left behind.
Even if Adams didn’t receive the same mandate last spring, nobody could know how his third NFL season would go. It ended with 75 catches, 997 yards and 12 touchdowns. Only four receivers in the league caught a dozen touchdowns last year. The other three found themselves on All-Pro lists at some time in their careers: Jordy Nelson, Antonio Brown, Mike Evans.
This is Randall’s inspiration. To resurrect his career. To keep it from fluttering into oblivion. To be the next Davante Adams.
“One year to the next,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, “it can change tremendously.”
Capers was talking about the Packers’ putrid pass defense, which ranked 31st in yards last season. But any talk of fortunes changing “tremendously” in one offseason might as well include Randall. The hope is King arrives in Green Bay, immediately grabs a starting job on the perimeter and never lets go.
No player in the Packers’ secondary will influence whether it fixes last season’s problems more than Randall. He has a distinction King and the others do not: the only cornerback Packers general manager Ted Thompson ever drafted in the first round.
Like Adams a year ago, every move Randall makes this preseason will be evaluated. The player wearing No. 23 might be the most analyzed in camp, and not just by people outside Lambeau Field. Everyone wants to see how Randall responds.
Adams has an idea.
“We chatted about it,” Adams said. “I mean, that’s a guy I hang out with, I’m around him a little bit, so it’s not something we have to constantly talk about. But it’s just something that, just being around him, he’s trying to just soak the game. He’s trying to figure out what it is that he needs to do, and he already knows.
“It’s just regaining and establishing not just confidence, but just once you start playing well, the natural confidence comes with it. Once you establish that I’m making plays now, you just start playing with a little bit more swagger, and once he gets back to that he’s going to be completely fine.”
Confidence, maybe more than anything, is considered the ingredient Randall needs most. He lost it early last season, starting with a Week 2 torching in Minnesota. Randall allowed nine catches for 182 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings’ Stefon Diggs, a good but not great receiver. It was the only game all season Diggs had 100 receiving yards and a touchdown.
A week earlier, Randall made the game-winning play on a fourth-down tackle in Jacksonville.
After Diggs, the struggles continued. Worst was a nagging groin injury that eventually required surgery, forcing him to miss five games.
For all the criticism last season, nobody could question Randall’s toughness. He first tried to play through the groin injury in October, but exited a home game against the Dallas Cowboys. Then he returned before December — possibly his earliest chance, perhaps earlier than he should have. Randall wasn’t the same after surgery.
“It wasn’t close to 100 percent,” Randall said. “Not even close.”
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr., not one to hand his players an undeserved free pass, corroborated.
“What he went through last year,” Whitt said, “was legitimate.”
It wasn’t just the groin. Randall had a bad shoulder in December. A bad knee in the wild-card game. A bad foot in the divisional round. One ailment piled up after another.
The hope is Randall stays healthy this season, and with health makes the plays to regenerate his confidence, returning to the high-potential corner with good ball skills he flashed as a rookie. Nobody on the Packers roster could benefit from a good training camp — and, even more important, strong September — more than him.
The reality is it’s a waiting game.
“I’m not going to put a number or a quote on it,” Randall said. “I’m just going to say the sky’s the limit for me. People will see what Damarious Randall is all about.”
The Packers have tried to help their young corner this offseason, putting him in positions where he feels comfortable. Randall mostly has played in the slot, where his experience as a college safety can bring familiarity in the middle of the field.
If things go according to plan, Randall effectively will retain a starting job as nickel corner, with King and veteran Davon House on the perimeter. Adams, noticing Randall on the practice field, said his teammate has a “Honey Badger-esque” ability to make plays in space, a reference to Arizona Cardinals All-Pro defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.
From where Randall was a year ago, a Tyrann Mathieu-esque contribution is the sky. Where’s his limit? The Packers are about to find out. It’s too early to write off their former first-round pick, no matter how disastrous his second season became. But the time is now to show 2016 is in the past.
Adams said Randall is doing “a good job so far” this offseason. Maybe Randall can follow the script Adams executed a year ago.
“Block out the outside noise,” Adams said, projecting advice across the locker room. “Just take care of you, and do what you have to, to make sure you’re focused. You’ve got to have a short memory, but you’ve got to remember how you felt when all that stuff was going on. That’s what’s going to fuel you to be better next time.”