After a concerning and unpredictable off-season, the Green Bay Packers have taken flack for not going all-in for a Super Bowl run while Aaron Rodgers continues to play at a strong level. Regardless of drafting Jordan Love and AJ Dillon, moves that could pay off in a year or two, general manager Brian Gutekunst has spent ammunition to make this team competitive for a Super Bowl in 2020. One of his largest accomplishments as GM has been remaking a secondary that has looked lost since Nick Collins’s injury and Charles Woodson’s departure. Gutekunst’s first pick of his tenure was budding star Jaire Alexander with the 17th overall pick in 2018. He doubled down on cornerbacks by taking Josh Jackson in the second round. In his second off-season, Gutekunst signed strong safety Adrian Amos from the rival Chicago Bears in free agency. He again doubled-down on one position by making Darnell Savage the first defensive back taken in the 2019 draft. With Tramon Williams remaining unsigned, Kevin King becomes the only incumbent defensive back brought in by Ted Thompson. In the first of a two-part series, we dive into the state of the Green Bay Packers secondary and look at the future of their defensive backfield.
State of the 2020 Green Bay Packers Secondary: Cornerbacks
Gutekunst really knocked this one out of the park. Alexander has the passion and athletic ability needed in a number one cornerback. He’s aggressive and takes chances but also possesses elite awareness for his age. He didn’t have as many splash plays in 2019, but that’s because teams just stopped targeting him. He can jump routes and gets burnt on double moves, but his natural instincts more than make up for being too ambitious. Alexander needs to force more turnovers (three interceptions and one forced fumble in two years) to take that next step into the upper-echelon of defensive backs, but the sky’s the limit for Alexander.
Alexander is a building block for not just the defense but the entire organization. Cornerback is one of the toughest positions in the game, and Alexander has already asserted himself as a top ten player at his position. The Packers have time to work with Alexander on a contract extension as he has two years remaining on his rookie contract plus a possible fifth-year option. Don’t be surprised if the Packers make him the league’s highest paid corner in a few years assuming he stays on the same trajectory.
Finally coming into his own with a full bill of health, King enjoyed a career year in 2019. He played in 17 games (including playoffs) after appearing in just 15 games his first two years in the league. He recorded five interceptions and 15 pass deflections which were some of the best marks in the entire league. As a big-bodied corner, King’s strengths and weaknesses are evident. He matches up well in man coverage and attacks the ball at its highest point with his dominant length. Although speed isn’t a question, he can get beat quickly off the line of scrimmage. He gets lost against strong route runners and can struggle to locate the ball. He has natural ability and started to put it all together last year, but 2020 will be a huge year for King.
King enters the fourth and final year of his rookie deal after being drafted with the 33rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Packers probably wish they had just selected him with their original pick in the first round, because a fifth-year option would be very beneficial as they decide what to do with their CB2. After an injury-plagued first two years in the league, King played like a good-not-great corner last year. If he can stay healthy and build upon a strong 2019 season, he could break the bank on the open market next off-season. It is very unclear what the Packers think of his value, given that he was drafted by Thompson and has past durability concerns. This is a true contract year for King and one of the biggest make-or-break years in recent Packers history.
Perhaps Chandon Sullivan should be listed next, seeing that he played more than 3x the snaps of Josh Jackson last season. But when looking at the state of the Packers cornerback group, Jackson must be addressed if not on talent then on prestige as a second round draft pick in 2018. What is going on with this guy? Viewed as a one-year wonder by many coming out of Iowa, Jackson has not come close to matching his final year of college production when he amassed eight interceptions and 18 pass breakups. He was a star at Iowa, he showcased intolerably stiff hips in his backpedal and a speed grade in the 47th percentile at the NFL Combine. Projected as a first round pick, it was believed the Packers got a steal with him falling to the second round. After looking like a formidable duo with Alexander moving forward, Jackson has shown next to nothing in two years with the Packers.
Jackson enters year three after a big step back in 2019. He lost playing time and was a liability in his few opportunities on the field. The loss of Williams will open up some playing time in the slot. Even so, Jackson is well on his way to becoming a bust in Green Bay. He will be clawing tooth-and-nail to crack the cornerback rotation.
Sullivan really stepped up for the Green Bay Packers secondary last year. After going undrafted two years ago, Sullivan saw the field as a rookie for the Philadelphia Eagles primarily due to injuries. The Eagles decided not to bring him back and he was an afterthought when signed by the Packers. He played his first snaps in week five against the Dallas Cowboys, recording a pick and pass deflection in the game. A viable special teams player as well, Sullivan should be a lock for the roster and may even have his sights on the starting nickel corner job.
Sullivan appears to have the leg up on Jackson as the third cornerback, assuming Williams is not resigned. Albeit in a small sample size of only 31 targets, Sullivan allowed a minuscule passer rating of just 34.3 in coverage. If he performs well when given the opportunity, he could turn a one-year $750,000 contract into a big pay day seeing as how valuable slot cornerbacks have become. Did I mention he can also play safety?
It may be a bit harsh to list Hollman here, seeing as I think the guy can really play. Hollman only suited up for four games last year, playing a minuscule number of snaps primarily on special teams. After being drafted in the sixth round out of Toledo in last year’s draft, Hollman made an instant impact in his first preseason game. He recorded an interception and looked the part of a boundary corner. With good size (6’0’’, 196lbs) and evident ball skills, Hollman could see some playing time this year.
Ento joins a laundry list of players the Packers have transitioned from receiver in college to cornerback in the pros. At Colorado, Ento caught just 20 balls for 335 yards and two touchdowns, but those ball skills and knowledge of route concepts in college should translate well to the NFL. He certainly landed with the right organization for his best shot in the league. Sam Shields was a converted wide receiver and even the undrafted Herb Waters made the active roster a few years back after making the switch in training camp. Ento did spend last year on the Green Bay practice squad last year, so he does have a leg up on the competition below.
There isn’t much to say on Amos at this point, other than he shares the namesake of another Packers defensive back. He played his college career at East Carolina University and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the New York Giants in 2017. He has spent the last two years playing for the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League. The 25 year-old rookie is the least likely on this list to make the roster of the Green Bay Packers secondary.
One of my favorite longshot sleeper picks to make the 2020 Packers roster is Dequoy. The first team All-Canadian was one of just two Canadian players to be invited to the East-West Shrine Game. He held his own in practices and brings a combination of size (6’3”, 198lbs) and speed (4.35 40-yard dash at his pro day) to hold up against NFL competition. He primarily played in the slot at the University of Montreal and will most likely transition to safety in training camp. For now, the athletic long-haired Canadian is a very intriguing cornerback who should get some shots at return duties.
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