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Packers 2020 Grades: At cornerback, it’s Jaire island and an ocean of uncertainty

The stars and scrubs approach rarely works in football, and it’s an especially bad idea at cornerback.

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NFC Championship - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Over two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2020 season. Today, we examine the cornerbacks.

In 2017 the Packers spent high draft picks on defensive backs Kevin King and Josh Jones. In 2018 they spent another two high draft picks on Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. But it really all started back in 2015 with the selections of Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. The 2014 Packers were anchored by a solid group of veteran cornerbacks and promising young players. Tramon Williams led the unit, putting up a very nice final year (of his first tour with Green Bay) across from the always reliable and occasionally spectacular Sam Shields. The 2014 team also featured Davon House, Casey Hayward, and Micah Hyde, all of whom would prove to be above average players, with Hayward turning into one of the NFL’s best.

You can never have too many corners, and Ted Thompson, relying on his famous thresholds, went for Rollins and Randall to keep the train rolling after Williams and House departed in free agency. 2015 went reasonably well with Randall stepping in for Williams and leading the team with 14 passes defended. In conjunction with Shields and Hayward, the team put together a very good season, ranking 8th against the pass in DVOA and 12th in points allowed. This was, unfortunately, the year that Jordy Nelson tore up his knee, and the offense stalled out. Bad timing.

The reckoning came in 2016. Rollins would turn out to be a complete bust. Shields would suffer a serious concussion in week 1 and never play another down for the team, eventually landing on IR. The team foolishly decided not to bring back free agent Casey Hayward, who was miscast as a pure slot corner by Dom Capers and would thrive with the Chargers. Randall would prove to be a locker room cancer, though he was effective when on the field. As a result of poor front office decisions and injuries, the Packers would field one of the worst secondaries in the league. They were routed by the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game with Ladarius Gunter at CB1.

The Packers have spent tons of capital attempting to fix the position, but a fixation on tall/big corners and converted college safeties just didn’t work out. Mercifully, Jaire Alexander finally managed to break through, and six years of cornerback futility came to an end, but not before it once again cost the Packers a trip to the Super Bowl.

Starters

Jaire Alexander

15 games, 15 starts
51 total tackles, two tackles for loss
13 passes defensed, one interception, one sacks

Thank goodness for Jaire Alexander. The utter futility that would exist in the secondary without his brilliance is too much to comprehend. Alexander has grown steadily better over his three year career, culminating in his 2020 ascension as a true lockdown corner. Alexander wasn’t just one of the best corners in football, consistently shutting down opposing number one receivers; he was among the very best defensive players in football, and should have received a few DPOY votes.

Alexander should make life easier on his cornerback brethren, especially given the good safety play behind him, but instead his close coverage works as a bit of a double-edged sword, forcing opposing quarterbacks to attack his inferior teammates. That said, his coverage skills are not in doubt, and he almost single-handedly dragged the defense to victory over the Buccaneers in the playoffs with two interceptions of Tom Brady. Unfortunately, as was almost always the case with Jaire Alexander, his teammates couldn’t capitalize on the opportunities he provided.

Alexander is a star, and should anchor the Packer defense for the foreseeable future. Now they just need to find him some help.

Kevin King

11 games, 11 starts
57 total tackles
5 passes defensed, zero interceptions, zero sacks

Yeesh. What Jaire Alexander provideth, Kevin King taketh away. In fairness to King, he’s not as bad as he played for most of the year, and injuries took their toll on his mobility. That said, he will live in infamy as the player taken instead of T.J. Watt and as a testament to the folly of drafting tall corners. There is precisely one corner as tall as King who is any good and that’s Richard Sherman, Sherman being the exception that proves the rule.

When healthy, King can be useful in man, and he has occasionally rated as one of the league’s best red zone cover corners, but he’s a poor fit for a defense that needs to play to Jaire Alexander’s strengths, and in any case, his ceiling is “merely fine.” He was listed as questionable for the NFC Championship game, and Tom Brady picked on him mercilessly, including a back-breaking end-of-the-half bomb to Scotty Miller. If King is healthy or out of that game the Packers may very well win. Instead, we saw what happened, and it happens far too often with King. Alexander was Pro Football Focus’ number one overall corner. King was their 99th. He’s a free agent, and it’s unlikely that he will be returning.

Chandon Sullivan

16 games, 10 starts
41 total tackles
6 passes defensed, one interception, zero sacks

One of the tough things about judging the Packer corners is that Alexander spends a decent amount of time covering slot receivers, and so, even though Sullivan is just average, the team’s numbers against slot corners are always very good.

This also exposes one of the issues with Pettine’s scheme, as Sullivan far too often found himself matched up with good outside receivers, where he is terribly overmatched. Sullivan is a fine slot corner, and more than capable of taking on tight ends and running backs, but that’s all he is. Because the position has so many holes, opposing offenses are generally able to create mismatches, and indeed, Tom Brady was able to do just that several times. Sullivan can be a useful player on a more balanced defense, and maybe that will be Green Bay in 2021. He’s a restricted free agent, and there’s a good chance he will be back.

Backups

Ka’dar Hollman

14 games, 1 start
10 total tackles
3 passes defensed, zero interceptions

Hollman was a 6th round pick out of Toledo in 2019, and it’s easy to see why he keeps sticking around.

Hollman has the tools to become the next Sam Shields or Tramon Williams. Unfortunately, while those two developed outstanding cover skills to complement their athletic profiles, Hollman is still raw, and entering his age 27 season (he played all four years at Toledo and is a bit old for his class), not exactly young. He has shown occasional flashes on the field, and his three passes defended in a very small sample size provide a glimpse of what might be there. He’s even above average as a tackler and run defender, but his aggressiveness can get him in trouble, and he struggles with the discipline of being a corner.

Hollman’s a valuable special teamer, and the kind of developmental prospect that’s worth keeping around until you know he’s not going to work out. We’re not there yet, but he needs to take a step forward in 2021.

Josh Jackson

12 games, 5 starts
26 total tackles, one tackles for loss
2 passes defensed, zero interceptions, zero sacks

Oh, what might have been. This year’s Big Data Bowl, a contest put on by the NFL where data scientists compete to quantify the previously unquantifiable, looked at defensive backs in the 2018 season. Both Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson were rookies in 2018, and it’s interesting to look back at both through the lens of Asmae Toumi and company’s winning entry.

Toumi used the data provided to break down defensive back play into two categories: ability to prevent targets, and ability to prevent catches when targeted. In 2018, both Alexander and Jackson excelled in the first, an indication of solid, close coverage. Alexander struggled in the latter category, something he has worked on and subsequently fixed, but Jackson was already middle of the pack, and after 2018, there was probably as much chance of Jackson developing into the kind of shutdown corner Alexander turned into.

Unfortunately his physical presence at the catch-point is much more of a problem than a useful skill as Jackson remains a walking pass interference penalty, who tends to finish his coverages awkwardly. He’s fast enough and disciplined enough to stay with even good receivers, but his lack of body control undoes it all. He is sort of a reverse Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

Even though Jackson outplayed Kevin King in many ways, he found himself benched/doghoused for a good chunk of the season, and his particular weakness is a tough one to fix once you’re in the league. He’s unquestionably talented, entering his age 24 season, and still under contract for one more season. Maybe Joe Barry will have more luck with him than Mike Pettine did.

The Prospects

Parry Nickerson

The one thing you can say for sure about Parry Nickerson is that he’s blazing fast, running a 4.32 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL Combine. That raw speed has kept Parry around the league, however persistent leg injuries (including a severe knee injury in college) have robbed him of some shiftiness. Nickerson is still young, and in the right situation, with the right coaching, could still turn into something. That said, he’s already bounced around the league a bit, and opportunities may be thinning out a bit.

He had a cup of coffee with the Packers in the regular season game against the Buccaneers, playing a few downs on special teams. He’s interesting enough to take a longer look.

Stanford Samuels III

The UDFA out of Florida State bombed out of the combine and the draft when he ran a 4.65 40. Lack of speed was an issue for Samuels at FSU, where he was occasionally beaten deep, but in contrast to Nickerson, Samuels is a more refined player, who managed to play well in college through a combination of good technique, and savvy. UDFA journeymen types tend to fall into two categories. The Parry Nickersons of the world, with their untapped athletic ability, tend to fare better. The question with Samuels is whether he has, or can develop the minimum athleticism necessary to keep his mind on the field. If you think it’s impossible, keep in mind Ladarius Gunter once started a playoff game. Also note that Samuels’ Combine time may not actually be reflective of his actual speed, thanks to some technique and schedule issues.

KeiVarae Russell

Russell played seven special teams snaps for the Packers this season, and it’s entirely possible you never noticed his presence on the team or know his story.

Russell’s past is littered with questionable decisions, and wasted opportunities. He was highly recruited out of high school and decided on Notre Dame where, as a freshman, he moved from running back to corner and started every game there, including the National Championship game. After that, things went south for Russell as he was suspended for a season along with several other members of the team for academic fraud. He would be readmitted for the 2015 season, but he broke his leg with two games to go and declared for the NFL draft.

Russell was drafted by Kansas City in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft, but after signing a 4-year, $3.15 million contract with over $800,000 guaranteed, he failed to make the team. Andy Reid would go on to say that Russell never understood the defensive concepts and failed to climb the depth chart or impress as a result. The Bengals claimed Russell off of waivers, and on his first ever defensive snap, he picked off Ryan Mallett, then of the Ravens.

Russell can’t seem to stick with a team, and having read this account of his history, you probably understand why. If he can get his head on straight, there’s an elite athlete with 3rd round talent buried in there. With this many red flags, it’s a long shot.

Overall Grade: B-

Alexander on his own is an absolute A+, with the rest of the corps dragging the unit down to just above average. That is an impressive feat in and of itself, and a lockdown corner of Alexander’s caliber will generally make everyone look much better than they are. Indeed, the primary reason Mike Pettine is no longer with the team is the struggle of every other corner on the team to be at least average (Chandon Sullivan possibly excepted), resulting in the defense overall being far less than the sum of its parts.

If Brian Gutekunst can acquire a supporting set of even average corners to supplement Alexander, Joe Barry will have an easy time of it. Of course, as we’ve seen, average cornerbacks don’t exactly grow on trees. This position should be the team’s top priority in the offseason.