“I need him back.”
That was the message from rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander, already speaking like one of the leaders of the Green Bay Packers defense. The symmetry stands out. The “him” in question is former Washington cornerback Bashaud Breeland, signed in September after Davon House went on injured reserve.
From Day 1, Alexander popped on the practice field with a gregarious personality and on-field swagger. By the middle of the season he was clearly Mike Pettine’s No. 1 corner, drawing assignments like shadowing Brandin Cooks and Julio Jones.
Breeland’s rise follows a similar path. Though it took the 26-year-old some time to get healthy after missing the offseason with a gruesome foot injury and injection, Breeland’s impact came immediately on the field. In his first game as a Packer, he assumed the team’s starting kick return duties, while also playing heavy snaps at cornerback against the Patriots.
Rust showed as the physical corner played too much with his hands and not enough with his feet in New England, drawing a pair of penalties. But the next week, he caught a rhythm against the Dolphins and his interception against Brock Osweiler changed the tide of that game. A muscle injury cut his night short in Seattle and Breeland didn’t return until this past Sunday, where he made that return a celebration. Undercutting a sideline throw, Breeland jumped Matt Ryan for a pick-six, extending the Packers' lead to two scores and ultimately providing the cushion the team needed to get a win.
From Alexander’s point of view it was game recognizing game, saying he and Breeland have developed a connection. Speaking up for his teammates, advocating for them, likewise speaks to Alexander’s character and his place as a tone-setter for this defense. The verve he plays with permeates this team and injected much-needed energy into a defense laying lifeless on the frozen tundra for too long.
Breeland, for his part, said he’d be open to returning to Green Bay if he had the opportunity, and based on the way he’s played — two interceptions in three starts — Brian Gutekunst should give him that opportunity.
Carolina signed the ex-Clemson standout to a free agent deal with $24 million over three years in the offseason, a deal voided when the team found out a gnarly cut on Breeland’s foot had become seriously infected. A failed physical voided the contract, leaving the talented cornerback on the free agent market until the Packers signed him at the end of September.
With major contracts like Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb coming off the books in the spring, Gutekunst will have a projected $40 million in cap space this spring. And he won’t have a long list of high-level free agents worth re-signing.
In fact, Breeland could very well be the most valued player of the group in terms of how much money the Packers are willing to offer. Spotrac suggests Breeland’s market value would be around $7 million per year, a figure Green Bay ought to be more than willing to pay with so few other names to consider.
Cobb and Matthews could return on considerable pay cuts, though they’ll certainly have interest elsewhere with their name recognition and pedigree. Muhammad Wilkerson and Jake Ryan are defensive contributors coming off injury and won’t be able to command much more than the veteran minimum. Ibraheim Campbell showed enough to get some consideration, but that would be a low-money deal as well.
Decisions on early rights free agents like Geronimo Allison, Jake Kumerow, Reggie Gilbert and Justin McCray shouldn’t blow up the bank account either, leaving more than enough to pay Breeland what he’s worth while leaving room for a free agent acquisition or two.
If there’s a question mark right now, it would be the injuries. Breeland struggled to stay healthy this season, though his bizarre illness cost him an offseason and training camp. The effects on a football player’s body from missing that much time can be considerable. On the other hand, he never played fewer than 14 games in four seasons with Washington, playing 15 twice and 16 as a rookie. Health shouldn’t be a mitigating factor in signing him.
Kevin King, on the other hand, has only played 15 total games in his career through two seasons. The lanky, athletic, and ultra-talented King may have the tools to be a No. 1 corner, but depending on him to be that for this team would be a fool’s errand. There’s no evidence to suggest he can give enough snaps to this team to be relied upon to such a degree.
Add rookie Josh Jackson’s struggles into the mix and House’s looming free agency, bringing back a starting caliber corner should be a no-brainer for the Packers. Fellow rookie Tony Brown flashed against the Falcons, often matched with his former Alabama teammate Calvin Ridley. Green Bay may have stumbled into something with the physically gifted former Tide defender, but beyond Alexander, there’s just no consistency or continuity.
It’s like Jaire said, he needs Breeland. And so do the Packers.