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With crowded CB room, could Packers rookie Josh Jackson contribute at safety?

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Given the construction of the roster and some subtle hints since the draft, it’s logical to wonder if Jackson’s skills suit him to a rover role.

North Texas v Iowa
Josh Jackson was the best ballhawk in college football last season and the Packers must find a way to get him on the field in 2018.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

After the Green Bay Packers doubled down at cornerback by selecting Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson in successive rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft, questions grew about their ability to play on the field at the same time.

New GM Brian Gutekunst suggested they could play together in part because he and the scouting staff felt like they could be nickel corners playing in the slot as well as boundary corners. Jackson and Alexander mainly played outside corner for their programs, but each started their career playing in the nickel, so suggesting they can each succeed in the slot isn’t speculation. They’ve done it.

But let’s posit another reason they can play together — and the Packers may already be hatching such a scheme. Get your tinfoil hats ready for this.

Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer announced Josh Jackson as a “D-back.” That may be Kramer being an old school football guy, or it may be that the Packers don’t want to pigeonhole Jackson as strictly a cornerback.

When asked how he thought he’d be utilized in Green Bay in an interview with NFL Network, Jackson offered some bread crumbs by saying, “I think I am versatile enough to play any position on the field whether it’s safety, inside—the nickel position—or outside.”

Safety?

Packers college scout Alonzo Dotson added fuel to the fire when he was asked to compare former Packers rover Micah Hyde to Jackson. “The wherewithal to get that ball, the ball skills,” Dotson said. “I thought that Micah did a wonderful job tracking in that centerfield type (role). Josh has those same skills.”

Except there’s a problem: Hyde didn’t excel as a centerfield player until he went to Buffalo to become a free safety. In Green Bay, he played primarily nickel corner and only some deep safety.

Given Jackson’s lack of experience playing press man—he played mostly zone coverage at Iowa in off technique—along with his instincts and ball skills in zone coverage reading and reacting, could Jackson be a candidate to fill the role Green Bay had initially earmarked for Damarious Randall? We found out this offseason that the Packers intended to play Randall, a college safety, in a hybrid role to maximize his balls skills and playmaking. After the trade to Cleveland, the Browns agreed right away Randall would play safety.

To recap: Jackson’s best skills are that he plays the ball in the air and reads the quarterback well. He doesn’t have experience playing the type of coverage Mike Pettine wants to play. And the Packers brought back two veteran corners, plus they drafted one in the first round who likely has the inside track to start in the nickel. Could that leave the Packers looking to find a way to get Jackson on the field by using him in a hybrid role?

Let’s forget for a moment why this would likely be implausible, at least in Year 1. The Packers will almost certainly give him the chance to sink or swim as a corner before doing anything with him, but let’s dream here for a moment.

Imagine how that could change this defense. Here’s a play from the Saints game, one in which the Packers defensive personnel struggled to matchup with New Orleans’ explosive skill players.

This is Green Bay in their hybrid nickel personnel with three safeties. Josh Jones spent much of this game near the line where the Packers would like to play him more this season. It’s a 2nd-and-9 look against 11 personnel so Pettine would have options with his group.

Dom Capers choose to go very small with three cornerbacks, three safeties, and just one true linebacker. Imagine how much better in coverage this group would be if Jackson replaced Brice.

If Kevin King, Tramon Williams, and Jaire Alexander lock down those top corner spots, that would leave Jackson otherwise off the field in this situation as CB4 or lower on the depth chart. In a formation like this, Jackson could slide in at safety, where he could be the guy covering Alvin Kamara in the slot rather than Josh Jones, putting a much better cover player on a dangerous pass-catching weapon. Jones slides to Brice’s spot as the deep safety, allowing Jackson to play his more comfortable position as a cover man. Jones could also stay put and Jackson could play deep; the Packers would have versatile options there.

Whether Jackson is taking Jones’s spot in the slot or Brice’s spot deep doesn’t matter from a practical standpoint because Jones would stay on the field either way. Simply think of Jackson as taking Brice’s spot in the personnel grouping and the Packers could figure out where he best fits on a given play or with a specific call.

Put the best players on the field and figure it out.

Here is the same personnel grouping on both sides for a third-and-long play. The front could look very similar with Jones and Martinez underneath, though Oren Burks would be an intuitive fit next to Jones in these situations.

Instead of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in man coverage against a tight end, it could be Jackson with Clinton-Dix playing deep middle. That would be an obvious way to get all their best cover people on the field at once, regardless of position.

Given how often the front office staff mentioned Jackson’s ball skills in post-draft interviews, it seems hard to believe they wouldn’t try to find a way to get him on the field.

The actual practical application of this principle may be hard, simply due to practice time and camp battles. Green Bay won’t know right away who the best corners are and whether Jackson can be spared to play some of these hybrid duties. Without muddying the waters too much further, Tramon Williams also has some experience playing safety. He could end up being the one takes on that role, allowing Jackson to play corner.

With Pettine at the helm and a defensive back room now stocked full of versatile talents, the Packers have more options than at any time in recent memory in terms of deploying their personnel. Whether he’s a corner or a safety, Jackson needs to be on the field for a defense begging for playmakers.