The Nickel cornerback position, aptly called the “Star” in Green Bay under Dom Capers, has long been one of the premier playmaking positions for the Packers.
It began with Charles Woodson, who transformed a solidly disappointing career into a Hall of Fame one upon arriving in Green Bay. He was followed by Casey Hayward, who snagged 6 interceptions in a stellar rookie season before hamstring injuries derailed the rest of his tenure with the team.
After Damarious Randall followed an up-and-down rookie season as an outside cornerback with a rough 2016 campaign, the Packers are now reportedly testing the waters with the former first-round pick inside in OTA’s this Summer.
Damarious Randall, working in slot, leaps in front of Geronimo Allison for soaring INT against Brett Hundley. Flashing those ball skills.
— Ryan Wood (@ByRyanWood) May 23, 2017
Although technically the same position, the inside Nickel CB role typically requires a different skillset than outside corner does. While a combination of size and speed is ideal to combat bigger WRs along the sideline, quick lateral movement and agility is preferable inside to mirror shifty slot receivers. As such, elite outside corners don’t always thrive when shifted inside, and vice versa.
Based on Randall’s skill-set and what he’s done well on film so far in his young career in Green Bay (and even before that in college), Randall may end up proving this is where he belonged all along.
Let’s start where NFL teams do when analyzing a player, the college tape. Randall was a Free Safety by trade at ASU but conveniently did play some Nickel CB on occasion. Here is a particularly interesting rep from 2014 against a dynamic player we’re all quite familiar with, Stanford WR Ty Montgomery:
Randall gets some help via a chip from the Safety, but he essentially runs the route for Ty and snaps his head around in plenty of time to make a play on the ball. Textbook.
On the following two plays against USC Randall is in a Zone Defense which allows him to read the QB’s eyes and make a play on the ball, first as a Safety…
And later as a true Nickel CB…
Randall usually handled himself well with inside coverage assignments when given the chance at ASU, which is why it’s somewhat surprising we haven’t seen him get the opportunity at all in Green Bay.
Fast forward to the NFL Combine and it’s likely the coaching staff was convinced he could make the transition to the outside in the NFL based on sheer athleticism alone:
While this was an impressive overall performance, you’ll notice Randall’s height (5’11”) and especially his length (30″ arms) are below average, which is less than ideal when squaring off against bigger outside receivers. You can overcome those shortcomings if you’re technically sound, but after getting no experience on the outside in college, Randall has been unable to master the finer points on the fly in the NFL (more on that later).
Those size concerns become far less of an issue in the slot however, and Randall performed particularly well in drills that translate well to covering the middle of the field. In fact, Randall profiles very similarly to Denver’s Chris Harris Jr., who is the gold standard for Nickel corners in the NFL today:
So while Randall appears to have the experience and athleticism to thrive as a Nickel CB in the NFL, the Packers drafted him 30th overall in the 2015 Draft to be a shutdown outside corner. With that, let’s take a closer look to see where he’s struggled and succeeded so far in his two-year career.
Randall had a promising rookie season overall, but there were moments where his lack of college experience on the outside got exposed. Take this play against the Chiefs in Week 3. Randall attempts to jam Jeremy Maclin at the line but easily gets shoved aside and loses inside leverage, eventually allowing a 61 yard catch-and-run:
Later in Week 10 against the Lions, Randall gets caught with his eyes in the backfield while in man coverage and loses Lance Moore along the sideline:
Later in the season against Oakland, Randall gives Amari Cooper a free release along the sideline and essentially gives up a free 41 yard gain in the third quarter:
Some of these mistakes are forgivable for a Rookie, and expectations were still high for Randall going into his second season. Rather than take a ‘second-year leap’ however Randall regressed instead, continuing to play with a lack of refinement you would have expected in his first year but not his second.
We’ll start with this play in the third quarter of Week 1 against the Vikings, where Randall gives Stefon Diggs too much cushion in a single-WR set and allows a big catch and run.
Later on that same drive Randall attempts to adjust and play tighter on the line, except now he gets completely turned around and even gets flagged for interference, but still allows the TD.
To be fair, Bradford threw more ridiculous dimes that day than he’s managed to rob from teams in his entire career, including on this play. I’m more concerned however with how Randall’s size prevents him from being able to challenge Diggs – a 6’0″ receiver – at the catch point in the end zone.
The following week, Detroit’s Marvin Jones runs a simple ‘Go’ route, but when he simply turns his head to find the ball Randall randomly hesitates (seemingly in anticipation of a hitch in the route) and can’t recover. Once again, the 6’2″ Jones has no trouble going up over Randall for the ball.
Randall’s 2016 season does need some context, though. First, he was thrust to #1 on the depth chart after Shields’ career ending concussion in Week 1, well before he was ready. On top of that, he played through an early groin injury which ultimately required surgery. Nonetheless, he has put plenty of plays on tape that showcase how uncomfortable he remains on the outside after virtually no experience there in college.
It hasn’t all been bad for Randall, however. A look back at some of his best plays with the Packers (most of which came in his rookie season) seem to reveal a common thread.
We’ll start with the biggest play of Randall’s young career, from the 4th quarter of the 2015 NFC Divisional game. While not technically playing Nickel CB here, Randall is covering John Brown near the middle of the field and is finally able to put his speed to use laterally across the field, and the results were far more favorable:
How about the second biggest play of his career? Much like he did on those earlier plays against USC, Randall is able to read the QB’s eyes against San Diego here in the red zone and instantly closes the window to force an incompletion on 4th down and seal the game.
I showed you a couple ugly coverage snaps from the Detroit game a year ago, but my personal favorite play from Randall’s career also happened to come in that game. Once again, this also occurred when Randall was able to read the QB and aggressively attack the football and rip it away from Eric Ebron.
Randall actually found himself lined up against the bigger Dez Bryant in the slot in Week 15 and his technique was utterly flawless, blanketing Dez the whole way up the field before forcing the incomplete (the play was originally ruled complete before getting overturned – something Dez must be used to by now in Green Bay):
Given Nickel corners play so close to the line of scrimmage, they’re also generally expected to be willing tacklers. Well, Randall checks that box, too:
Do these handful of plays prove that Randall will be an excellent Nickel CB in the NFL? Absolutely not. What they do serve to show however is that Randall has been at his best when the play unfolds in front of him and he can utilize his elite athleticism to attack the ball from the middle of the field, which he’s demonstrated going all the way back to his days at ASU.
Thus far in his NFL career that athleticism has been neutralized on the outside, where his discomfort with flipping his hips to defend the deep ball along the sideline has often been exposed. His size further inhibits him from battling bigger receivers for the ball at the catch point, and he even plays small at the line of scrimmage, rarely disrupting receivers off the line.
So much about developing solid NFL players is about putting them in a position to succeed. Shifting Randall inside, after he spent his entire ASU career making plays as a roaming Free Safety/Nickel CB, could be the move that unlocks the playmaking potential that made him a first round pick in the first place. Nickel has even become the new Base in Green Bay, with Capers deploying three or more corners on >70% of plays, so the third CB is no longer the “backup” role it once was.
With new additions Davon House and rookie Kevin King on the outside, the forgotten Randall could be the one who actually shines as the ‘Star’ in Green Bay’s secondary in 2017.
Follow Faris on Twitter @Chef_BoyarG!