'Every day is going to be a battle' in Packers' cornerback competition
Ninth in a 10-part NFL draft position-preview series looking at prospects who might be of interest to the Packers. Today: Secondary.
GREEN BAY - Around this time last spring, as former general manager Ted Thompson prepared for what would be his final draft, the manner in which the Green Bay Packers planned to address their weakness at running back was among the most popular topics of conversation. The conversion of wide receiver Ty Montgomery had gone well enough — especially considering the near-vertical arc of his learning curve — but replacements for Eddie Lacy and James Starks were certainly required.
To picture Montgomery’s reaction as Thompson added not one, not two, but three rookie running backs is to imagine the collective mindset of the Packers’ developmental cornerbacks ahead of the debut draft for new general manager Brian Gutekunst. This year, it’s Lenzy Pipkins, Josh Hawkins and Donatello Brown who are waiting to see how populous their position will be behind the team’s more established corners.
“Shoot, I know myself and I’m not going out without a fight,” Pipkins said this month while driving to Green Bay for the start of the offseason program. “Young guys are going to have to come with it, I’m going to have to come with it, and every day is going to be a battle.
“I’m not scared, never been scared. Me being undrafted, I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, so that’s what adds fuel to the fire. If they draft some corners, it will be fine. I’m still going to be me and I’m still going to do what I can do and control what I can control.”
Pipkins, who made the team as an undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State, seems to have absorbed whatever diamond-in-the-rough glow surrounded Hawkins after the 2016 season. With eye-catching speed (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and a feisty play style, it was Hawkins who the coaches hoped would make a significant leap in his second season. But inconsistency marred his performance in 407 snaps (38.7 percent playing time), and the coming months could be a do-or-die scenario after Hawkins turned 25 in January.
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Instead, Pipkins looks the part of a budding prospect after notable flashes in small doses last season. His debut from scrimmage came in Week 6 against the Minnesota Vikings, and were it not for the broken collarbone of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, which rendered everything else from that game moot, Pipkins’ six tackles in 46 snaps (including one tackle for loss) would have garnered more attention. When Pipkins resurfaced with 71 combined snaps in Weeks 15 and 16 — after the Packers had been eliminated from the playoff race — he did so with a combination of enthusiasm, aggression and burst that hinted at legitimate upside.
“Just having energy,” Pipkins said, “all your teammates feed off of that. The guys love me, love playing with me out there, and I know that’s what I bring to the table. My energy is going to be even higher this year because I have a lot more confidence going into year two.”
In March, when coach Mike McCarthy said he views one of the former undrafted corners as a future starter, it’s very possible he was talking about Pipkins.
“(The Packers) know what type of ability I can really bring and what type of potential I can have because I haven’t reached my ceiling,” Pipkins said. “Really this is only my fifth year or sixth year playing football. I only played (football during) my senior year of high school so I’m still young. I still haven’t reached my ceiling yet and I still got a lot to prove.”
One of his points of emphasis for Pettine and pass game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. is the versatility to play both inside and outside, which is arguably Pipkins’ most valuable trait in an offseason when the Packers shipped their best slot corner, Damarious Randall, to the Cleveland Browns. At 6 feet and 202 pounds, Pipkins is physical enough to contribute in run support while still possessing enough speed (4.46 seconds) to cover receivers and influence the game as a blitzer, something he wants to do more. That fellow cornerbacks Kevin King, Tramon Williams and Davon House are all better suited for the perimeter means Pipkins should get his chance to audition for the nickel spot in the coming months.
“Damarious leaving did kind of help me out a little bit going forward,” Pipkins said. “I know that I have to take advantage of my opportunities whenever I get those during OTAs and minicamp coming forward. I’ve got to be ready and have it on my mind to just be ready whenever I get thrown in there, so (the coaches) can continue to trust me and believe in me.
“Joe Whitt just told me to focus on film, breaking down film this offseason and making sure I’m staying on top of my game. He told me whatever I have moving forward is going to be up to me. He told me I could play in this league six to 10 years, but he said it’s all on me.”
Regardless of how the coaches and personnel department view Pipkins’ potential, the Packers are certainly still in the market for cornerbacks via the draft. They have dedicated several of their 30 pre-draft visits to corners projected in the first few rounds — from Central Florida’s Mike Hughes, a likely first- or second-round pick, to LSU’s Donte Jackson, a second- or third-round choice — and would surprise no one by using the 14th overall selection to bolster one of their weakest units.
But no matter how many cornerbacks Gutekunst drafts, and even if he goes on a spree like Thompson did with running backs, the rookies will have to earn their reps.
“Just like last year I was coming in undrafted and I had to beat some guys out,” Pipkins said. “If that’s the case, I’m going to have to do it again. I got no problem, I love competition. Competition brings the best out of everybody, so I’m (ready) for whatever comes. Whether they draft a corner or not, I’m going to be ready.”