Here's one takeaway from the Green Bay Packers' offseason practices that ended Thursday: Their first two draft picks, cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, showed enough to suggest they might push for playing time even though the Packers didn't draft them to play a lot as rookies.
Take that for what it's worth. These workouts weren't even in pads. It's not unusual for a player to look good in the spring playing in shorts, then turn ordinary when the pads go on and the game gets faster and more physical.
But you have to say about Randall and Rollins — if you watched a full practice this spring — that you noticed them, and in a good way.
Rollins, the second-round pick, especially showed up often playing the ball, even if he's not quite as fast and athletic as the first-round pick Randall.
Beating out Micah Hyde for the nickel job would be asking a lot from Rollins, because Hyde is a natural. He's not particularly big or fast for his position, but he knows how to play and in his third year is starting to hit his sweet spot in combined experience and physical ability.
But Rollins' play as a slot cornerback suggests that Hyde at least doesn't have a gimme. And depending on how other positions play out, Rollins at minimum should be strongly in the running for the dime slot position, which is a growing role in coordinator Dom Capers' defense as offenses continue to spread the field and throw more and more.
"(Rollins) has really good instincts," said Joe Whitt, the Packers' cornerbacks coach. "He understands routes. The ball finds him. He's a ball guy, a lot like Casey (Hayward)."
The Packers have had Rollins in the slot and Randall at outside cornerback all spring. Both probably can play either position, but Randall has better speed to cover deep routes. Rollins' fast reactions and good instincts mean his best position probably is the slot, where the emphasis is on short-area quickness and reacting to the ball.
But if you didn't know his background, you'd never guess that Rollins is as green as he is — a high school running back who in college played four years of basketball at Miami (Ohio), then only one season in football after his basketball career ended. And you'd never guess that in that one season of college football, he played almost exclusively as an outside cornerback, with only a handful of snaps in the slot, which is a notably different position.
Rollins has had some rough moments to go with the good — he gave up two completions early in a 2-minute drill Thursday, for instance. But in the same way that tackle David Bakhtiari and center Corey Linsley looked like NFL players from Day 1 of padded practices in training camp as rookies, Rollins has looked like he belongs. Unlike Bakhtiari and Linsley, Rollins hasn't done it yet in pads, though his position lends a little better to evaluation in unpadded work.
Rollins simply doesn't look like a severely inexperienced football player. When asked Thursday if his head is swimming, he shot back: "I'm not sinking."
Randall, in the meantime, has worked most of the spring with the No. 1 defense opposite Sam Shields at outside cornerback because Hayward has sat out all offseason due to a foot injury.
Hayward is expected to practice full time when training camp opens and remains the favorite to win that job. But if he's rusty or injuries continue to dog him, it could open the door for Randall.
In fact, it's clear that Hayward's injury history and impending free agency next year were other reasons general manager Ted Thompson selected cornerbacks with his first two draft picks this year after losing Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency in March.
Hayward missed 13 games in 2013 because of a recurring hamstring strain, then after playing all 16 games last season has been out while recovering from the foot injury. He'll be an unrestricted free agent next spring.
Most likely, when camp ends Hayward will be the outside cornerback opposite Shields, and Hyde will be the No. 1 nickel. If that happens, it's almost a given that at worst Rollins or Randall will be the dime back, which should mean at least a handful of snaps a game, if not more.
Regardless, Thompson's drafting of Rollins and Randall with his top two picks is just the latest evidence that NFL defense has become all about pass rush and coverage. The Packers won't need either rookie cornerback to play a big role unless there are injuries, but keep an eye on them in their first training camp, because one or both just might get on the field anyway.
"I think they are very good athletes," Capers said this week. "I think they've applied themselves well. ... We have to play them (a lot) in the preseason to find out how they stack up when we put them up against another team. They're both going to be very important to us as we head into the season."
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