Packers improve at CB with surprising pick
The Green Bay Packers improved their cornerback situation during the first night of the NFL draft with a name you may not have expected.
That's because prior to Thursday night most pundits considered Arizona State's Damarious Randall to be a safety — but not the Packers.
General manager Ted Thompson waited patiently until his turn and drafted the 5-foot-107/8, 196-pound defensive back with the 30th pick in the first round. Although Randall strictly played safety for the Sun Devils, he has previous experience as a cornerback and returner during his time at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College.
That's the type of versatility the Packers are looking to tap into given the evolving state of Dom Capers' 3-4 defense, a unit that's seen the rise of elephant rushers like Julius Peppers and Mike Neal, and dual-threat defensive backs like Micah Hyde in recent years.
"We felt fortunate that we were able to draft Damarious Randall that late," Thompson said. "We think he's a very versatile player. We'll probably line him up as a corner. But in Dom's system, those defensive backs are all over the place. It's hard to keep up with who's playing what."
Randall's experience at cornerback and returner should help the Packers create competition at two of their weaker spots following the offseason departure of boundary cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Davon House, and returner DuJuan Harris.
The Packers shunned unrestricted free agency for the third consecutive year, opting to fill their needs again through the draft. Coming into the draft, the Packers had five cornerbacks on their depth chart with Casey Hayward, Hyde, Demetri Goodson and Tay Glover-Wright looking to compete for the starting cornerback job opposite Sam Shields.
The Packers had Randall high on their board for some time, according to Thompson. He was considered by many experts to be the top covering safety in the NFL draft, but most never connected the dots to Green Bay. After all, the Packers drafted Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round last year.
During the scouting process, Thompson was told by Arizona State's coaching staff that Randall could've played cornerback, but the Sun Devils kept him at safety because they were deeper at cornerback and coaches felt he was the team's best defensive player.
"I was coming in as a corner," Randall said. "Me, coach (Todd) Graham and the coaching staff sat down and was like, 'We need you at safety because we have some corners that could hold their own out there and we just do not have a safety.' So they just asked me to play that role and I would do whatever I can to help the team win."
Randall was awfully productive in his time in Tempe. He led the team with 106 tackles (9½ for a loss), nine pass deflections and three interceptions last season en route to a first-team all-Pac 12 selection. His time in the three-cone drill (6.83 seconds) was the best of any free safety at the combine in addition to a 4.42-second time in the 40-yard dash.
NFL teams were split on where Randall would play in the pros. He estimates 12 teams liked him at straight cornerback with another seven or eight projecting him at safety. Randall had confidence he could fit in at both spots.
"Really, honestly, I can play both," Randall said. "Corner's fun to be out there on an island and then safety kind of being back there controlling the back end is also fun. So either one, just being on the field is just kind of my mindset."
Randall traveled a long road in his collegiate career, beginning as a baseball player at Butler (Kan.) Community College. The Packers seem to like multisport athletes. Last year, they drafted former Gonzaga point guard Goodson in the sixth round.
Randall switched back to football after undergoing shoulder surgery after his freshman year at Butler. He spent the next two years at Mesa before playing his final two seasons for the Sun Devils where he had 177 tackles.
The Packers admittedly have been in the market for what the coaches generally refer to as "football players." It's one reason why Hayward and Hyde were so attractive in recent years despite shaky times in the 40.
Randall's a hair short and scouts questioned the bulk of his frame, but none of that deterred Thompson. He also could compete for reps as a kickoff returner where the Packers ranked 31st in the league last year. He averaged 28.2 yards per return on 19 kickoffs at Mesa.
"I just feel very, very comfortable at returner," Randall said. "Just kind of whatever the Packers ask me to do, I'm going to go back there and do it to the best of my ability."
It's the fourth consecutive year the Packers have used a first-round pick on the defensive side of the ball. It's also the ninth defensive player Thompson has taken with his 11 first-round selections since becoming general manager in 2005.
Thompson's work isn't over. The Packers still need help at inside linebacker and possibly defensive line. All five of the top inside linebackers were on the board when the Packers selected at No. 30, along with top defensive linemen Malcom Brown and Eddie Goldman.
Thompson said he fielded some phone calls, but didn't want to take any chances moving back and losing out on Randall. In the end, he determined it was in the team's best interest to go with Randall, a move that instantly improves the cornerback room.
Randall was the fourth defensive back off the board and first safety. Predictably, Michigan State's Trae Waynes (Minnesota) and Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson (Houston) were off the board early. Kansas City picked Washington's Marcus Peters at No. 18, looking past his midseason dismissal from the Huskies.
In Green Bay, Thompson feels the Packers have added a difference-maker to a secondary that had been one of the defense's strongest positions prior to Williams' and House's departures.
"With me, I don't like to get too technical," Thompson said. "I just like to get good football players. I think Micah has shown that that's exactly what he is. He's a really good football player. We're hopeful that Damarious can be that kind of player."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.