Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall was no stranger to criticism this past season. While he only played in 10 games and dealt with a groin injury that ultimately required surgery, Randall was still labeled a disappointment by many. Surely his injury affected his play, but many have opined that it was a mere footnote in Randall's downer sophomore season and not the root of it. If this story sounds familiar, it should. The same could be said about receiver Davante Adams last year. After watching Adams flourish late in the 2014 season, many were having sweet dreams of a Packers offense that had Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Adams teaming up to light the world on fire. Then came Nelson's ACL injury and Adams' own ankle injury and he wasn't able to fulfill those expectations. In the divisional playoff game in Arizona, it was Randall who left his primary responsibility during overtime that left Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald wide open on what would become a 75-yard catch and run to set up the winning score. It would diminish what was a decent rookie season but the hopes and ceiling for Randall were still high. Expectations were on par with your typical first rounder: make a big jump from year one to year two, just like what Adams faced the year prior.
Those expectations came from a lot closer than fans and media. When Green Bay allowed Casey Hayward to leave in free agency for a contract that they easily could have stomached, the prevailing rationale was that they (and by "they", I'm really referring to head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson) had enough confidence in Randall and Quinten Rollins that they could make up for the loss. The Hayward argument has been made and debated ad nauseam since the day he signed with the San Diego Chargers and to be fair, a lot of that has been in hindsight after the loss of Sam Shields. It's one thing for Randall to continue to play alongside Shields and improve but to suddenly have to improve and replace Shields is an entirely different thing. This is yet another parallel to what Adams dealt with as he tried to help overcome the loss of a key player next to him.
After a decent week one in 2017 and without Shields, Randall struggled mightily against the Minnesota Vikings in week two and from there, his play never reached what most hoped it would. He sprinkled in a few good games such as week 14 against the Seattle Seahawks during which Randall made a highlight-reel interception to prevent a touchdown pass and added another that day. Or the wild card game against the New York Giants where Randall helped keep Odell Beckham, Jr in check most of the day and added another late interception to help seal the win. But overall, most agree that they have their reservations about the idea of Randall returning as a starting outside corner in 2017.
I'm not here to overload you with player rankings and where Randall sits in comparison to the other cornerbacks in the league. It's obvious that he wasn't good enough for what the Packers defense needed and we saw him struggle badly at times. So much so that it has widely been stated that the Packers and Thompson need to do what he seems to loathe doing most: go out and get a veteran corner to come in and play right away. That means a free agent. That means a guy who wasn't with the Packers last season. Which are you more willing to bet on? That Thompson actually signs a player worthy of starting immediately or that Randall pulls an Adams and has a resurgent 2017? Adams got Nelson back and it seemed to make a huge difference to the young receiver as well as the offense as a whole. The Packers released Shields and his days in Green Bay are done so Randall won't get the opportunity to get his familiar running mate back. As much as Thompson and the team may want to continue to believe in their young corner group, they are in dire need of experience at the position. And even if they use their first few draft picks on corners, it would be incredibly negligent and arrogant of them to think they can trot out a first year player, Randall, Rollins and LaDarius Gunter again in 2017 and get vastly better results.
When he's playing well, Randall carries an air of high confidence. He has a swagger to him that you see in some of the better cornerbacks in the league. The problem is, he's not able to maintain enough consistency to allow that confidence to build. It's almost like Randall has to keep starting over in becoming who he truly wants to be. Some have called him out on his off field habits and questioned the work he puts in in the film room. All of the best corners of the past and the present have said that learning how to study film and use that preparation to anticipate are what made or makes them successful. Playing corner is like a chess match between defender and receiver. Sometimes you can get by on ability alone, but eventually, you have to be able to keep up mentally and even out think your opponent if you want to win. Having an edge on the mental side can also help mitigate a lack of top end speed. Randall isn't a burner by any means but he's not slow. Speed is one thing that can't be taught and Randall has been victimized by some quicker receivers but his abilities when he's playing well suggest that he can still play at a high level against top competition.
It's hard to know what situation the Packers are going to be in at corner until after free agency and the draft. What the team does during both of those time periods will tell us a lot about what they now think of Randall. After spending a first round pick on him, Green Bay is committed to getting the most out of him. Whether that's bringing in guy or two to play on the outside and take some of the heat off of Randall or being able to move him into the slot, trust that the Packers are going to exhaust every option they have before they make any final judgment. After seeing Adams finally break through last season, hopefully the Packers realize how important it is to put their young players in a good position to succeed. It's too soon and unfair to use the term "bust" on Randall this early in his career, but where does your confidence level sit for him heading into next season?
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