GREEN BAY - The jury is still out on whether the Green Bay Packers have enough quality cornerbacks to escape last year’s demons, but the first few days of training camp have shown that quantity is no longer an impediment.
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. spent 2016 crocheting his unit together as injuries mounted in the second half of the season. His lineups changed from week to week even if the results did not. The Packers finished the season ranked 31st in pass defense.
But a hand that was once forced by injury is now free for improvisation. There are 12 cornerbacks on this year’s 90-man roster, and at least seven are legitimate candidates to make the team. Whitt can mix and match to his heart’s delight.
“Everybody is going to get a chance to prove themselves,” cornerback Damarious Randall said. “Everybody is going to get reps each day. Everybody is going to get a chance.”
By the second day of training camp, Whitt already had begun to tinker. Cornerback LaDarius Gunter, who was part of the first-team defense Thursday, dropped back to the second unit as rookie Kevin King stepped forward with the starters. And Randall, who has been playing extensively in the slot, made way for Quinten Rollins in the first-team nickel defense.
“That’s just the way we’ve always been,” Randall said. “Everybody knows each position, so whenever it’s time for the team to need you at a certain position, you’ve just got to be there and be ready to go.”
But while Randall’s comments speak mostly to the Packers’ affinity for cross training, it’s possible the early substitutions by Whitt are rooted in exploration. Just as Whitt must determine what he has in the newcomers — chiefly King and the undrafted free agents — he also must decipher what to expect from Randall, Rollins and Davon House after all three endured disappointing seasons in 2016.
In other words, the Packers are likely to mix and match their cornerbacks for the next few weeks until certain players step forward and other players fall back. Every practice could be different; every game the lineups might change.
“If I go out there and get beat every play, then I’m sure they’re going to think something of somebody else tomorrow,” said King, the Packers’ top selection in this year’s draft. “It’s all about just constantly improving, getting better, staying humble and just trying to get better every day.”
While the long-term hope is that King will cement himself as a starter, the coaching staff had expressed a collective desire to bring him along slowly after he missed the majority of organized team activities to finish his spring semester of college at Washington.
But there he was Friday taking first-team reps on the second day of camp, manning the perimeter opposite House. It seemed like an indication that Whitt already may have lengthened King's leash.
“I do what they tell me, you know?” King said. “I don’t try to put my head anywhere and try to think about what the coaches are doing. I come to work, and whatever they tell me to do that’s what I’m going to do.
“I have a lot to learn, definitely, but I think I’m on the right track. I just have to keep it going.”
In the meantime, change is likely to be the only constant. Randall and Rollins will flip places in the nickel defense; Gunter and King will trade duties on the perimeter; Hawkins and the undrafted rookies will be sprinkled in as well.
There are more than enough bodies to go around. The task is finding out which ones can play.
Injury report: Outside linebacker Vince Biegel (foot), cornerback Demetri Goodson (knee) and tight end Aaron Peck (hamstring) did not practice Friday.
Tight end Martellus Bennett dropped out of practice briefly after falling during a non-contact drill. Bennett limped off the field with a member of the medical stuff but returned a few minutes later.
Bennett later told reporters he was fine and described the situation as “just football stuff.”