Everyone likes to talk about “training camp battles” every year. There were going to be fewer this year than most, especially with 21 of 22 starters returning. Richard Rodgers has a chance to take over for Andrew Quarless at tight end. No one really knows who the four starting linebackers are, or even if the open spot is next to Sam Barrington or across from Julius Peppers.
I do have interest in all of those spots but the most interesting battle to me is at cornerback. Like wide receiver there are really 3 starting spots. In this league the base set for many offenses includes a third wide receiver instead of a fullback or second tight end. In the same case most teams use their nickel defense as a “base” set.
The wide receiver position is about as set in stone as it could possibly be. Jordy Nelson is one of the best 5 or 6 receivers in the league and Randall Cobb is the NFL’s finest slot receiver. Davante Adams is making plays in practice, carrying himself as if he’s the best receiver on the team and his logical step as a second year player in the offense after being a redshirt sophomore coming into the NFL points to possible superstardom.
When you add his development to the lack of progress made by Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis and how expectation have to be kept in check for rookies (Ty Montgomery) the top 3 receivers couldn’t me more locked in. Cornerback just might be a different story.
At first glance cornerback was obvious. Rookie corners often aren’t ready for prime time. Casey Hawyard, Sam Shields and Micah Hyde all have at least 2 full seasons of experience under their belts in the system and are talented players. Not only that, but the two cornerbacks the Packers drafted certainly seem like projects.
Damarious Randall played safety at Arizona State. Quentin Rollins graduated as a cornerback, but for the 4 years prior to that he played point guard for the Miami (OH) basketball team. As rookie corners go, these guys appear to be pretty project-y.
As the great Lee Corso would say: “not so fast, my friend”. The Packers now appear to have a multitude of options at the cornerback position, and it’s now up to the coaching staff to figure out how to best utilize everyone’s abilities.
I’m not going to speak to Rollins’ abilities because he hasn’t been at practice much and I haven’t had a chance to sit down and watch him (live or not). Damarious Randall, however, is being trained in as an outside corner and he doesn’t at all look lost. A player with his size (5’11”) and athleticism (4.46 40, 38” vertical jump) has the ability to be a playmaker on the outside and if he picks up Joe Whitt’s teaching at an accelerated rate he could be dangerous.
Randall’s ability to pick up the defense has inserted him into the dime as the second outside corner opposite Sam Shields. The fact is that the Packers have one exceptional slot corner (Casey Hayward) who is currently being forced to play outside and another playmaker (Micah Hyde) who should either play inside as well or be playing safety. It would be great if Randall picked up the defense so quickly that it sent Hyde to the bench in nickel and made him the top backup at nickel and both safety spots. That way, no matter what, Casey Hayward is still defending slot receivers.
Randall isn’t even the only corner making that lineup a possibility. LaDarius Gunter is a tall (6’1”), undrafted corner out of the University of Miami (just like Sam Shields) and he’s been turning heads every day of camp. The big knock on Gunter was his timed long speed. A 4.69 40 yard dash is not great for any position, even safety. For a corner, it was a draft day apocalypse. Gunter’s film would tell you he’s a mid-round pick, and that talent has shown almost every day of training camp. It would be classic Ted Thompson if the best cornerback he acquired during draft weekend was Gunter, and not Rollins or Randall.
If Damarious Randall or Ladarius Gunter can claim the outside spot across from Sam Shields Casey Hayward can stay inside where he is most effective. I know it seems like it would take Micah Hyde off the field a lot, but (especially at home) the Packers are going to be playing from ahead so much this season that they might use more 6 DB sets than we might think. I also wouldn’t hate to see Hyde next to Barrington playing a little nickel linebacker so Matthews and Peppers/Perry can rush off the edge. The makeup of the cornerback crew that the Packers take to Chicago will be very interesting.