Damarious Randall needs to play full time.
If the Green Bay Packers were leaning in that direction with their first-round draft pick anyway, last week against Denver showed it's the right call.
Though Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and his receiving corps punished everyone in the Packers' secondary, Randall showed he's better suited to play outside than Casey Hayward, the natural slot cornerback who opened the season as the starter opposite Sam Shields.
Randall has played 69.3 percent of the Packers' defensive snaps this season because of injuries in the secondary, so he's been close to a full-time player even though he came out of camp as the No. 4 cornerback.
But if the Packers' secondary is at full strength this week at Carolina — that's still in doubt because Sam Shields has a shoulder injury — Randall still needs to be on the field. And it looks like he will.
"He gets the snaps as a starter already," said Joe Whitt, the Packers' cornerbacks coach. "His snaps aren't going to change."
It's not that Hayward can't play outside. Against some teams he's fine, as he showed when he lined up outside on and off through the first seven games. But that doesn't mean he should play there for the Packers, as we saw at Denver, where Demaryius Thomas's size (6-feet-3) and 4.38-second 40 speed were a little too much for Hayward to handle.
Randall is the better option because he's faster — 4.46 seconds electronically timed in the 40 at the NFL scouting combine to Hayward's 4.57 seconds – and a little more athletic than Hayward (38 inch vertical jump to Hayward's 34). That makes Randall the better matchup with the taller, faster receivers who generally line up outside.
"That will certainly get tested Sunday with (Carolina receivers Ted) Ginn and (Corey) Brown," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Those guys are both speed merchants."
Hayward, on the other hand, is a natural slot corner for the nickel. His straight-line speed isn't an issue, and his instincts and ball skills are emphasized against the smaller, quicker receivers who man the slot position.
Randall also has the cockiness cornerbacks need, because at that position in the NFL you're going to give up plays, and that can't dent their self-belief.
"Confidence is not lacking in him," Whitt said. "At all."
Randall also is a rookie. That means growing pains.
In 55 snaps against the Broncos, for instance, he gave up as much as anybody. According to Pro Football Focus, Manning was 5-for-6 for 72 yards throwing at Randall, and 7-for-10 for 135 yards going at Hayward.
But playing Randall means more potential for improvement, too. Make the move now, the Packers probably will be better off for it in January.
Even in the midst of what was a horrible day all around for the Packers' secondary in Denver, Randall flashed the athleticism and quick reactions that he'd displayed on a play or two most days in training camp. His fourth-quarter interception of Manning while playing zone coverage was much like the fourth-down, game-clinching pass breakup he had at the goal line in the final seconds of the previous game against San Diego.
On both, Randall was responsible for the short zone outside and had to be ready to defend a throw either to the receiver on the sideline or the other running up the seam from the slot. On both the throw went outside, and on both Randall made the play on the ball.
"That was a real nice interception, he played his zone just right," Capers said. "Manning tried to get the ball in there, and he made the play. He had a good feel for where he needed to be in relationship to the receiver."
Randall won't cure the Packers' defensive ills of the last two weeks – Manning and San Diego's Philip Rivers combined for 873 yards passing in those games – and in fact he was on the field for much of it. But with safety Morgan Burnett finally back last week after missing four games, the Packers' secondary is Shields' return away from full strength.
And when everyone's healthy, the personnel group that matters most will be their nickel package, because Capers uses it on roughly two-thirds of the defensive snaps.
To start the season, the three cornerbacks in the nickel were Shields and Hayward outside, and Micah Hyde inside. That's how the Packers lined up against Denver, too, before Shields' injury in the first quarter.
But the best three are Shields, Randall and Hayward, with Hayward in the slot.
"I think Shields and Randall give us two guys we feel can match up on the outside," Capers said.
That could leave Hyde with relatively little playing time, primarily in the dime, after he'd played 96.3 percent of the Packers' defensive snaps this season. However, most of those were at safety in place of Burnett.
Capers likely would find ways to work Hyde into some of his nickel packages, because Hyde's a better tackler than Hayward and might match up better against some tight ends.
Either way, the early signs suggest general manager Ted Thompson did well in picking Randall in the first round at No. 30 overall. The rookie needs to play no matter who's healthy, and it looks like he will.
"He believes in himself, he believes in his ability," Whitt said. "Hopefully it will show up."
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