GREEN BAY - As a brutal afternoon lurched to a halt at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis last October, the season-altering injury to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers obscured another devastating moment for a teammate on the opposite side of the ball.
Midway through the second quarter of what finished as a 23-10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, cornerback Quinten Rollins lined up across from wide receiver Adam Thielen in the slot. Thielen broke hard to the outside before opening his hips and backpedaling into the end zone a few yards downfield. When Rollins tried the same maneuver, planting his right foot in the ground to change directions, he felt a pop that foreshadowed the official diagnosis to come: a torn Achilles tendon in his right leg.
“I kind of had a sense,” Rollins said. “I didn’t want to believe it, but yeah, I had a feel for what it was. (I was) still really in shock, honestly. You don’t expect to tear one of the strongest tendons in your body. But everything happens for a reason.”
Exactly what that reason was will remain unknown until later this summer, when Rollins appears in a game for the first time since undergoing reconstructive surgery last fall. At that point, during the Packers’ exhibition season, Rollins will learn whether the repaired Achilles might ultimately save his football career or, like the tendon that snapped, sever it.
The months between allow for the continued rehabilitation of an injury some medical experts consider more detrimental than a torn ACL, which was long considered the most devastating injury in sports but has become less problematic as the world of medicine evolves. A torn Achilles, on the other hand, zaps a world-class athlete's explosive power and carries with it a difficult recuperation. One study published last year by the Columbia University Medical Center found 30.6% of professional athletes with a surgically-repaired Achilles tendon rupture never return to their respective sports.
Rollins, though, was in attendance for the beginning of organized team activities this week and took part in practice on a limited basis. He remains optimistic seven months removed from the injury.
“It feels good,” Rollins said. “I didn’t have no setbacks since I started rehabbing. I’m day by day still with it, and every day is different. I’m just trying to take it one day at a time.”
Rollins’ surgery was performed in Green Bay by Robert Anderson, a renowned foot and ankle specialist who joined the Packers as an associate team physician last summer.
Anderson moved to Green Bay from Charlotte, where he served in a similar capacity for the Carolina Panthers, to work alongside close friend and Packers’ team physician Patrick McKenzie.
“It’s not as intense as a groin (surgery),” said Rollins, who underwent surgery on his groin after the 2016 season. “For a groin they wanted you up that next day walking a mile, so that was intense for me.
“But as far as the Achilles, it was just slow, especially that first couple months because you’ve got to just keep it in that steady position, minimal movement, and then you’ve just got the process. I was on the scooter for a while, then I transitioned to the boot with heel lifts, and then knocking heel lifts out until I could get on solid ground. ...
“You’ve got to come ready to attack. Once you hit that three-month mark is when you kind of get cut loose as far as rehab.”
As his rehab progressed, Rollins watched new general manager Brian Gutekunst select cornerbacks with the first two picks in the draft: Louisville’s Jaire Alexander in the first round and Iowa’s Josh Jackson in the second. It was not unlike the 2015 draft when Gutekunst’s successor, Ted Thompson, chose Damarious Randall and Rollins with his first two selections.
The decisions were unsurprising to Rollins, who said he expected the Packers to target a No. 1 corner after trading Randall to the Cleveland Browns earlier this year.
“That’s just the nature of the business,” Rollins said. “It’s part of football. You’re always trying to find the next person up. I understand the business. You can’t get your feelings tied up in that.”
With premium capital invested in Alexander, Jackson and Kevin King, last year’s second-round pick, Rollins faces steep competition to retain his place on the 53-man roster, especially after Gutekunst brought in veteran corner Tramon Williams and re-signed Davon House. It’s likely Rollins will compete with Lenzy Pipkins, Josh Hawkins, Demetri Goodson, Donatello Brown and Herb Waters for some of the final few spots on the team.
Which raises the question of whether the Packers would consider converting Rollins, who is in the final year of his rookie contract, to safety, a move that could potentially give him a better chance of making the team and also minimize the effect of any reduction in speed or quickness as a result of the torn Achilles.
For his part, Rollins says he doesn't believe the surgery will negatively affect his play and he doesn't see the need to switch positions at this point in his career. He feels comfortable at cornerback and believes he can play on the perimeter and in the slot.
But that doesn't change what scouts said about him before the 2015 draft: Of the 11 scouts polled by former Journal Sentinel reporter Bob McGinn, nine of them believed Rollins' best position would be safety.
“I think for sure he can move to safety,” an AFC scout said. “He's a basketball player who played one year at corner. People are saying safety because he didn't run extremely well and he has ball skills. I think you make him fail at corner first.”
There are some within the Packers' scouting department who feel Rollins should be moved to safety, according to a source, but it's unclear if the coaching staff feels the same way. At the moment, Gutekunst remains confident in Rollins' ability to be a successful starting corner.
“I do believe that,” Gutekunst said at the annual league meeting in March. “It was unfortunate the injury he had, and you’re always waiting to see guys come back and where they’re at from those kinds of injuries.
"He’s another guy that needs to play. Obviously playing one season of college football he had some really good moments early before he got hurt the last couple years, but he needs to play. He needs experience. He needs to grow. We’re looking forward to getting him back.”