GREEN BAY – The spotlight was squarely on the Packers' trio of second-year cornerbacks in 2016, and that's not going to change as they move into their third years in 2017.
No matter what happens to Green Bay's secondary via free agency and the draft over the next few months, the play of Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter next season will be watched closely.
To put it simply, Green Bay's pass defense didn't hold up against the league's No. 1 offense in Atlanta in the NFC title game. It's the area with the largest target of improvement for next season.
Regardless of any changes in the offing with veterans or new rookies heading into 2017, Head Coach Mike McCarthy views the aforementioned trio as a key to the entire unit taking a step forward because they aren't finished products.
"I'm excited about their future," McCarthy said after the season ended, knowing full well the criticism the Packers' young corners were absorbing in the aftermath of the playoff defeat. "I think they're going to be really good players for us."
A draft-and-develop system is predicated on the growth of young players, but the proverbial second-year jump was seen only from Gunter. After playing just eight snaps in the 2015 regular season as an undrafted rookie, he entered his second season as Green Bay's No. 4 corner, but injuries to Sam Shields, Randall and Rollins elevated Gunter to the top spot out of necessity.
With his 30-plus snaps in the wild-card victory in Washington from his rookie season serving as the bulk of his foundation, Gunter repeatedly lined up against the opposition's top passing targets – New York's Odell Beckham Jr., Dallas' Dez Bryant, and Atlanta's Julio Jones, to name a few.
As expected, Gunter went through his ups and downs, but McCarthy still credited him with being the team's "most consistent" corner. That was partly due to his availability, as he played in every game, unlike Randall and Rollins, who dealt with injuries off and on all season.
After promising rookie years as first- and second-round draft picks, respectively, Randall and Rollins didn't make the progress Gunter did, and health was certainly a factor.
The injury issues began with Rollins in the spring, as he missed a ton of practice time with a dislocated finger. Then a groin problem surfaced in the regular season, costing him three games, and an awkward sideline collision in Week 17 sent him to a Detroit hospital, keeping him out of the first two playoff games with a concussion and neck injury.
Randall began the season with a mixture of strong (fourth-and-1 stop in Jacksonville, INT vs. Detroit) and rough (Minnesota in Week 2) moments before a groin injury cropped up. He missed one game and tried to return but reinjured it and eventually needed surgery. He missed six games in all and never seemed to get comfortable the rest of the way, despite an impressive two-interception game against Seattle in December.
"That was a tough go with the cornerback position," McCarthy said of the seemingly endless battle with injuries, which began with Shields sustaining a concussion in Week 1 that became season-ending.
"I thought (position coach) Joe Whitt did a tremendous job getting those guys ready. We just never had any consistency with who we were playing with in multiple weeks."
More than once over the second half of the season, McCarthy talked about the practice time Randall and Rollins missed. That factored into the consistency he referenced as well. The Charles Woodsons of the world can skip practice and play on Sunday like nothing's changed, but that doesn't work for everybody.
Even with good health, a demanding position like cornerback is not easy for young players. Shields, after a promising rookie season, took his share of lumps in 2011 as a second-year player before settling in as a long-term starter in his third season and beyond.
Still, it's not a surprise Randall and Rollins played much better as rookies, when they combined for six interceptions (including playoffs), with two returned for TDs. They were healthy and practicing all the time.
That wasn't the case this past year. No one wants to use injuries as an excuse, but the Packers saw the same thing with receiver Davante Adams in his second season in 2015.
Dogged by an ankle injury much of the year, and then a knee problem in the playoffs, Adams had many questioning the Packers' investment of a second-round pick in him. He responded with 75 catches for 997 yards and 12 TDs in a healthy third season, adding 16 grabs for 217 yards and two scores in the postseason.
Now it's Randall and Rollins who have the fans wondering whether the Packers' significant draft investment will pay off, while the big picture at the position includes the uncertain future of Shields and pending free agent Micah Hyde.
If one or both of the Packers' top 2015 draft picks can be the Adams of 2017, McCarthy's vow to improve the Packers' pass defense – he said already it will be a focus in OTAs this spring – can be realized. The head coach noted the two will be working out together in California in the offseason.
The focus turns forward, not back.
"I think both of those guys will definitely grow from this experience this year," McCarthy said, "because they both had a lot of adversity they had to deal with."