Bashaud Breeland should be a Carolina Panther. Back in March, the Panthers signed the ex-Washington cornerback to a three-year $24 million deal, the kind of contract that suggests he was considered a high-level starter. A bizarre situation involving a nasty cut and infection in his foot kept that deal from going through, while keeping Breeland on the unemployment line until late September.
Brian Gutekunst made a splash back in March in inking Jimmy Graham, Muhammad Wilkerson and Tramon Williams, a stark departure from his predecessor in terms of handling free agency. And while Gutekunst’s first-round draft pick looks like a future star and both Graham and Williams have been solid this season, Green Bay’s new GM may just have made the move of his offseason when he signed Breeland off the street for the veteran minimum on September 26th.
An injury to Davon House forced the team’s hand, with scant veteran experience in the back end behind Tramon Williams. Mike Pettine and Joe Whitt stared at a depth chart with two top rookie draft picks, but rookies nonetheless, and an undrafted rookie free agent after second-year pro Kevin King. Plus, King hadn’t even played an entire rookie season dealing with an injury and was once again unable to stay healthy.
He remained on the periphery early in his tenure, battling an injury of his own. The Packers surprised some fans when Breeland wasn’t active following the team’s bye, but when he did finally make his debut, it was as the starting outside cornerback and kick returner. Not only was he going to play, he was going to start and be trusted to play against Tom Brady. It went about as one might expect; he played rusty, grabbing too often and being a step slow at times to diagnose and react to plays.
But his mere presence boosted a thin, but talented secondary. If Breeland, a quality man cover corner, hadn’t been available to the Packers, they likely couldn’t have made the Ha Ha Clinton-Dix trade with no one on deck to replace the now-departed free safety. Tramon Williams can now slide back there because the Packers feel good about a secondary with Breeland and rookie Jaire Alexander manning the fort even with Kevin King out yet again.
Despite a rough start against the Patriots, Breeland shined against the Dolphins as a returner and a cover man, picking off Brock Osweiler for a momentum-swinging turnover in the second half. The 26-year-old boasts the kind of size/strength/toughness the Packers want out of their corners and while his ball skills have readily been a question, he has already earned the trust of coaches at 1265 Lombardi. There’s an old scouting adage that suggests cornerbacks and receivers who return kicks should be treated as more reliable catching the ball simply because their coaches already trust them to do it.
Don’t expect Breeland to keep that role full-time with Trevor Davis set to be active for the first time this week, but his mere presence suggests the Packers like him with the ball and trust him to secure it. He must have some level of ball skills to be handed such a role right from the jump.
But that also shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, he was supposed to be getting quality starter money from the Panthers. This is a very good player who is still young and can keep getting better. As he learns this system and gets comfortable with the players, his addition could end up being more impactful than any of the moves made at the trade deadline. He was in initially because he had to play. Breeland may stay on the field because he’s earned that playing time.
Josh Jackson clearly isn’t ready to be an every down man corner, as evidence by his struggles against the Dolphins on Sunday. Remember, this is a player with just one year of starting collegiate experience, albeit an outstanding campaign where he led the country in interceptions. But Iowa played almost exclusively zone coverage principles and Jackson struggled in college to tackle consistently, something still plaguing him in the NFL.
Breeland’s ability to play the boundary and in the slot, where Jackson appears particularly ill-suited, adds flexibility to this secondary that relies on adaptability and malleability in Pettine’s system. Looking forward, it could be the reason to move Jackson to safety, a move that NBC’s Chis Collinsworth suggested the team had already been considering during the Patriots telecast last week. With Breeland and King on the boundary and Alexander in the slot, the Packers would have a killer top three group with Jackson in the back end with Josh Jones or a potential free agent acquisition (2019 free agent Landon Collins recently lauded Aaron Rodgers in an interview with Bleacher Report).
Even before the acquisition of Breeland, the potential move to safety for Jackson ought to have been considered considering his strengths as a ball hawk, reading the quarterback.
For now though, Jackson remains a cornerback if for no other reason than the Packers need him and Tramon Williams seems perfectly suited to fill that role in the short term. If we assume Williams remains in that role beyond this season, that does tick one quality player off the cornerback depth chart, opening the door for the Packers to feel compelled to keep Breeland.
These are big picture questions the Packers will have to ask themselves moving forward. For this season though, they’ve clearly found a player who has the type of skill and ability to be an impact starter at a critical position in any defense. Nothing will top Gutekunst swindling the Saints out of a first-round pick and still winding up with potentially the best cover corner in the draft. That’s the move of a career for plenty of GMs. But just having someone they trust to let King return to full health would make Breeland’s veteran minimum contract worth it. But getting the chance to make an impact, make this defense better, and potentially set them up well for the long-term, makes this play a home run for the Packers.