GREEN BAY - Beginning in February, when general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy resurfaced at the NFL scouting combine, the Green Bay Packers have straddled the line between underpinning their youthful cornerbacks and insuring themselves against another wave of self-destruction.
Publicly, the Packers have yet to condemn the first- and second-round picks they invested in Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins during the 2015 draft, even in the wake of regressive sophomore seasons. Both players were eroded by groin injuries, ultimately requiring surgery, and the Packers are banking on better returns in 2017 with their bodies back at full strength.
But the underbelly of optimism is caution, and Thompson protected himself during the offseason. He brought in a veteran presence by signing street free agent Davon House, a former fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2011. He used his second-round pick in the 2017 draft on Kevin King, an impressive athlete from Washington who will be groomed as a future No. 1 corner. And when the 53-man roster was submitted last weekend, Thompson reserved seven spots for cornerbacks, an unusually large number.
Nonetheless, Randall and Rollins responded with impressive showings in training camp, and on the eve of the regular season they occupy two of the three starting spots in the nickel defense: Randall plays on the perimeter, Rollins in the slot. House, 28, is the third starter.
Randall discussed his vision for the 2017 season with the Journal Sentinel this week (the interview has been condensed and edited):
Q. Are you really eager for the chance to play after dealing with the groin problem that you had last year?
A. Yeah, I mean, I’m about to show the world what Damarious Randall is capable of. And that’s just shutting down my side of the field.
Q. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said your game against Denver, the exhibition game, might have been the best performance you had as a Packer. What worked so well for you that night?
A. Just the first time I’ve been healthy and a vet. My second year, I was battling through injuries from the first week of the season. But now I’m healthy and ready to go and my body feels better than ever. I can come up (and) tackle, cover for however long that I need to do it for. So I mean just to be able to play freely like that and to just know going into the game that I don’t have any restrictions, that just helps me out mentally more.
Q. You look a little bit bigger through your upper body. Did you do anything during the offseason to focus on getting stronger?
A. Nah, I’ve just been working my (expletive) off just getting my lower body back to where it needs to be so I can have my lower-body explosion. For the most part I feel like that I did everything I need to do in the offseason. And I’m still working on staying the course now, like even getting extra running after practice. Because in the fourth quarter of games, that’s whenever guys separate themselves. When the receiver may get tired and run a lazy route, and I can step in and get an easy pick-six. Those are the plays that stand out to coaches, that stand out to everybody. Those are the game-changing plays that I feel like I’m capable of making this year.
Q. How would you describe what it felt like to try and flip your hips or open your hips while recovering from the groin injury?
A. I mean, people saw me playing 10 or 11 yards off. It was obvious. I don’t know if other teams really figured it out, but that’s not my style of play. I’m an in-the-face press corner. I was just trying to do what I could to stay healthy throughout the game. Just for me to go out there, that just showed my teammates and coaches that I can still push through injuries. But this year I’m healthy and ready to go, and it’s going to be a lot more hands on at the line of scrimmage. It’s going to be more of my brand of football.
Q. You sound really excited about this upcoming season. Can you just not wait for Sunday at this point?
A. When you feel like you’re one of the best corners up in the league, you just really can’t wait to showcase your skills. So this is going to be a very, very exciting year and I feel like this team is going to go as far as the secondary takes us.
Q. Coach Whitt has a saying that QBs and CBs determine the overall success of each team. Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers. What do the cornerbacks need to do on their end?
A. That’s why I said this team will go as far as the corners and safeties will take us. Aaron is going to be Aaron. He’s an 11- or 12-year vet. We know what we’re going to get from the offense. Now it’s time for the defense to not only have games where the offense puts up 30 — well (expletive) it, let the score be 30-0 then. Just because we got a powerful offense, that don’t mean we should have to use them all the time. Just with that being said, we should have more opportunities to get more picks and just looking forward to it, man. It’s just exciting. It’s just exciting for everything to finally come together, and this is my third year. I done got my hands on quite a few balls, but nothing like what I’m thinking that I’m going to get this year.
Q. Do you think you and Davon House can be a really good pairing on the outside, to have two really good corners the way you probably thought you had a chance to be with Sam Shields if he hadn’t gotten hurt?
A. When you’ve got two press corners that are going to disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage, that is going to give guys like Clay (Matthews), Nick (Perry), (Ahmad) Brooks, Mike Daniels time to get to the quarterback. Whenever you give those guys an extra second, they should have double-digit sacks or we should have a field day with picks. I mean, it goes hand in hand. You can go back — and I don’t know if it’s 100 percent — just look at all the top corners up in the league and look at (the production from) their front seven. I don’t know if that’s 100 percent true, but it’s probably about 90 percent true. It just works hand in hand. The faster we can both start clicking, the better this team will be.
Q. Aside from the confidence you have in yourself, what makes you think the rest of this cornerback group can be significantly better than last year?
A. Because we’ve been competing, battling throughout the whole entire camp. I mean, everybody has some ups and downs. I went through an injury, House went through an injury so that forced other guys to step up — King to step up, (Rollins) to step up, (Lenzy) Pipkins to step up and (Josh) Hawkins to step up. With that being said, guys are going to be ready to go because we experienced it last year where our fourth, fifth, sixth corner was our starting corners. Obviously that didn’t go too, too well. But what team is going to still be a top team without their top three guys? This year I just think we’re very, very better-equipped and I feel like those guys are ready for that moment. If that is the case, I don’t think we will miss a beat this year.