GREEN BAY – It was fairly obvious from the start that the Packers had something special on their hands with Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins last summer.
Pressed into action, the two rookie cornerbacks responded to their early playing time with 89 tackles and five interceptions on the NFL’s sixth-ranked pass defense.
That first training camp proved to the Packers that Randall and Rollins could play. Now, the second has been about determining where they fit best in the defense.
The Packers feel they have a bona-fide shutdown cornerback in Sam Shields, but they have to determine how to disperse the 1,048 snaps Casey Hayward played a year ago before signing with San Diego this offseason.
Most of those reps came in the defense’s nickel sub-package as the inside cornerback playing the slot, otherwise known as the “star.”
Randall and Rollins have been rotating, along with fellow second-year cornerback LaDarius Gunter, between the outside and inside spots since organized team activities.
“What we’re looking at right now at this point of training camp is we want to train as many guys as we can to play multiple positions,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
“I think they’re very capable of playing either way. As we go through the preseason, we’ll probably try to get a certain number of reps with those guys playing different positions.”
Capers and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt have been open-minded about the options.
Rollins, a former basketball player, played strictly on the boundary during his one year of college football at Miami (Ohio). Randall, a safety at Arizona State, didn’t even play cornerback.
Yet, it’s come naturally to both.
The switch wasn’t especially difficult for Randall, who often dropped down from safety in college to cover slot receivers and tight ends on the line of scrimmage.
Randall inquired about possibly playing inside as a rookie, but the presence of Hayward and mounting injuries often required him to stay on an island.
This summer has been his chance to test drive the position.
“I’m a versatile-type player. Guys like that like to be around the ball,” Randall said. “Playing on the inside, that’s where the ball goes. A lot of the times the quarterback drops back to pass, he’s looking to the tight end or to the slot guy. At the end of the day, it’s being around the ball more. That’s just something I’ve been accustomed to.”
Rollins’ transition to the position was admittedly “tough” given he’d never really played inside before. He was learning on the fly during each day of OTAs and camp.
The Packers kept feeding him snaps inside and slowly things began to click. By the regular season, Rollins had no issue playing wherever the Packers needed him to.
His work with Whitt went a long way in learning the position, but Rollins also felt watching Hayward went a long way in his understanding of the position.
“You become savvier inside because he knows how to play the position so well,” Rollins said of his former teammate. “He’s always helping you with the little things, the way he sees stuff. The way he sits on routes, he knew what was coming. He’d read the offense and just play off that. Play with his eyes.”
The cornerback position isn’t the only area where the Packers are experimenting this summer. Capers also is toying with the idea of using safety Morgan Burnett closer to the line of scrimmage in some packages.
As offenses spread out in hopes of finding mismatches, the importance having of versatile defensive playmakers in the middle of the field has continued to grow.
Burnett is fast enough to keep pace with tight ends and slot receivers, but also tough enough to stand up to hard-charging running backs.
“We have to try to find a way to get our best football players on the field,” Capers said. “We like Morgan as an experienced safety, he’s had a lot of reps there. We just feel it’s smart to try to get him some reps close to the line of scrimmage in case we need him there.”
In today’s NFL, it’s almost a requirement for teams to be five deep at cornerback to protect against mismatches. Despite losing Hayward, the Packers like how their secondary stacks up.
Neither Randall nor Rollins is concerned with where he lines up in 2016. Right now, they’re enjoying getting more opportunities to share the field together.
After all, the most valuable part of training camp and the upcoming preseason is gaining familiarity with one another.
“It’s making our defense more flexible that we can match the way we want to match up with teams,” Randall said. “That just takes away the equation whenever teams try to move certain guys in the slot so they can get matchup problems.”