GREEN BAY – Given their backgrounds, it was hard to know just how quickly Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins could make an impact on Green Bay’s defense.
Turns out, it didn’t take long at all.
The Packers’ first two draft picks in 2015 combined for six interceptions, including playoffs, with two returned for scores in their rookie year. They finished first and third on the team in passes defensed with a combined 27. Not bad for a converted safety (Randall) and a former basketball player who had played just one year of college football (Rollins).
“You have to be careful you don’t overload young guys,” Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers said. “There’s a lot to learn, especially when they play different positions. Both of those young DBs really made strides and adjusted to the things we were asking them to do. I like their futures.”
The defensive coaches’ developmental approach paid off. Randall essentially became a starter on the outside while Rollins regularly played in the dime defense.
They were brought along at the right pace, gaining more responsibility and varying duties, in the slot and on the boundary, as the season wore on. Most important, their play helped the defense withstand the lengthy late-season absence of top cornerback Sam Shields (concussion) without any glaring issues.
“It was exactly what I expected,” Rollins said, reflecting on his first season. “We’ve got a great group of guys here, vets here that get you up to speed really quick, so there wasn’t any falloff between practice and games.”
Between the two, Rollins made the first big splash, getting both of his picks (including a pick-six) in Week 5 vs. St. Louis.
The following week, Randall swatted away a fourth-and-goal pass in the final seconds to beat San Diego, and he recorded his first two pro interceptions the next two games against Denver’s Peyton Manning and Carolina’s Cam Newton, the likely league MVP.
He added a third interception in Week 15 at Oakland, running it back for a score, and his fourth pick came in the end zone early in the fourth quarter of the NFC divisional playoff to thwart an Arizona scoring drive and keep Green Bay in the lead.
There were rookie mistakes as well, of course – the occasional poor angle on a tackle attempt, or a small technique error that gets magnified against top-flight receivers and passers. Randall’s failure to follow Larry Fitzgerald across the field on the first play of overtime in the playoff loss is a lesson he won’t soon forget.
It’s obvious, though, that if their games had been littered with those types of miscues, they wouldn’t have played as much as they did. They picked things up quickly and played without fear.
“The experience getting the reps, getting in there and making some mistakes, a lot actually helped me and benefited me,” Rollins said.
Added Randall: “I’ve got some things to work on, and I’ve got some things to build off of. I’m looking forward to next year, honestly. Even though the season just ended, I’m excited for us next year and for this secondary we have.”
That group will include Shields, plus another basketball convert in Demetri Goodson and undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter, who also shows promise. At safety, veterans Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Chris Banjo, plus hybrid DB Micah Hyde, provide both experience and playmaking ability.
The unknown is cornerback Casey Hayward, a pending free agent, whom Randall credited for being a strong leader. So much young talent in the pipeline combined with financial realities may leave little room for Hayward, but the Packers will deal with that when the time comes.
For now, last year’s top two draft picks are proving the Packers made worthy investments in them, and that’s all anyone can ask for.
“We’re just going to keep on getting better, improving and just having fun out there on the field,” Randall said. “They can’t call us rookies anymore. Me, Sam, ‘Q,’ ‘Gunt,’ and whoever else is with us, we’re going to be out there ballin’.”