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Packers 2022 Roster Preview: The best cornerback trio in the NFL?

The Packers have an oustanding big three, but who will be they count on in the dime package or when injuries pop up?

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Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Cornerback is the most important defensive position in football, and with everyone healthy, the Green Bay Packers’ corners are elite. The Packers struck gold last year with first rounder Eric Stokes, a blazing corner who managed to convert his raw speed into play speed right out of the gate, and leading almost every meaningful rookie DB statistic outside of interceptions.

While Jaire Alexander spent most of the season out with a shoulder injury, the Packers turned lemons into amazing top-shelf bourbon and lemonade by picking up Rasul Douglas, a true diamond in the rough if ever there was one. The starters are not in doubt and should work together marvelously. The depth on the other hand, is a little more uncertain.

Let’s take a look at the corners, where they are likely to excel, and what weaknesses may still be lurking out there.

Jaire Alexander

How acquired: 2018 NFL draft (1st round, #18)
NFL experience: 5th year
2021 stats: 4 starts, 4 games, 1 INT, 3 PD, 0 sacks, 13 tackles (9 solo)

Alexander missed most of 2021 with a shoulder injury, and it’s fair to be concerned about how that shoulder will impact his appetite for contact going forward. Alexander is a good tackler for his size, and a good physical corner for his size, but the caveat on both of those should be noted.

That said, Jaire isn’t out there to tackle. He is one of the league’s elite cover corners, regardless of whether he’s in zone or man, outside or in the slot. Alexander brings elite straight line speed, elite agility, and elite intelligence, which was on full display in his lone interception from last season (which came off Jimmy Garoppolo and was our #4 play of the 2021 season). In 2020, he boasted an elite 90.5 PFF grade when he allowed a miniscule 4.7 yards per target, and he has never had a season graded lower than a 72 (still very good) in his career. While corners are among the most volatile performers in the league, Alexander is entering his age 25 season and is a sure bet to allow opposing quarterbacks less than a 55% completion percentage, less than an 85 passer rating, and less than 7 yards per target.

With Douglas and Stokes as outside specialists, expect Alexander to spend most of his time in the slot, but as the unquestioned best player of the group, he’ll go wherever he’s needed.

Rasul Douglas

How acquired: Signed off of the Arizona practice squad in 2021.
NFL experience: 6th year
2021 stats: 9 starts, 12 games, 5 INTs, 1 FF, 0 Sacks, 57 tackles (52 solo).

Douglas was originally a 3rd round pick of the Eagles in 2017, and he toiled there in relative obscurity for three seasons before moving on to Carolina where, despite a solid season in which he recorded 9 PDs and 62 tackles, he wasn’t retained. He would wind up on Arizona’s practice squad to begin 2021, but when Jaire Alexander went down with a serious shoulder injury, Brian Gutekunst pounced. Douglas didn’t take long to get up to speed, stepping in against Chicago and Washington almost immediately and getting his first, dramatic revenge interception against the Cardinals in his third game.

On the surface, Douglas seems like a prime candidate for regression as his game-sealing end zone pick against the Cardinals, combined with his two pick-sixes, can give the mistaken impression the Douglas was all splash plays. While the big-time plays were some exquisite frosting, there was some serious cake underneath, which makes it far more likely that Douglas can maintain this level of performance going forward.

For starters, his 5.5 yards per target is not the mark of a corner who gambles on turnovers. Douglas recorded his picks because he was able to stick close in coverage, and use that big frame to get inside on opposing pass-catchers. Pro Football Focus liked his work enough for a solid 74.8 grade, well into their “good” range, but when we dive deeper into analytics, it gets even better. PFF’s Timo Riske recently published an article introducing their new route running metrics (focused on receivers), “Route Running Grade Over Expected,” which can detect elite receiver play over a smaller sample than we normally would need. It also works in reverse, through “Route Coverage Grade Over Expected.” Over the past 3 seasons, Jaylon Johnson of the Bears led the league in the stat, followed by Ronald Darby of the Broncos. Third was Rasul Douglas.

If Alexander is limited by his shoulder, Douglas is the next best candidate for the slot as his size and punch make him a force near the line in addition to the secondary, and he’s gotten some limited work there. Regardless of where he lines up, the Packers have done well here, and they rewarded Douglas with a 3-year, $21 million deal ($5.3 million guaranteed).

Eric Stokes

How acquired: 2021 NFL draft (1st round, #29)
NFL experience: 2nd year
2021 stats: 14 starts, 16 games, 14 PDs, 1 INT, 0 sacks, 55 tackles (43 solo).

The starting Packer corners are vastly different combinations of speed, agility, and size. Rasul Douglas is a bigger, more physical player. Jaire Alexander moves like Davante Adams in reverse, seemingly immune to the laws of inertia. And the long, lanky Eric Stokes is pure speed.

I will confess to not liking what I saw of Stokes on tape in college. He frequently looked out of control, and while his speed helped him overcome some of his technical limitations, that doesn’t always translate to the next level. On top of everything else, every attempt at an interception looked like it was his first time ever catching a football.

And this is why I’m not a football scout. A lot of those deficiencies are still there, and he does, frequently, still appear out of control, but as it turns out those deficiencies just don’t matter much. Stokes occasional awkwardness disguises an extremely intelligent player, who anticipates well, and who instantly recovers from any misstep. While Stokes absolutely can use his speed to close the gap on deep balls, as he did several times in 2021, he’s almost more impressive in smaller spaces, quickly cutting in front of or catching up to receivers out of their breaks. Stokes is always there when the ball is.

The question going forward is whether he can start to make more splash plays and turn that tight coverage into picks. His hands are a big issue, but if he can become even an average ball-handler, his pick total could increase immensely. He’ll never be a great tackler, but he is a willing one, and in retrospect, his deficiencies are simply opportunities. My mistake with Stokes was not seeing what he could do well while being blinded by an ultimately unimportant quality that didn’t “look right.” His speed provided Stokes with a high floor. If he hits his ceiling, he may be the best of the trio. Per PFF, no corner in the NFL allowed fewer open targets last year than Stokes (24%).

Shemar Jean-Charles

How acquired: 2021 NFL draft (5th round, #178)
NFL experience: 2nd year
2021 stats: 0 starts, 14 games, 8 tackles (5 solo)

Coming out of Appalachian State, Jean-Charles had a reputation as a diminutive bulldog. While on the smallish side for a corner, he was unafraid to mix it up with bigger receivers while serving as a willing tackler in run defense. Notably, he also played primarily outside.

Jean-Charles’ size will likely limit him to the slot in the NFL, and given the position switch, it’s not that surprising that he didn’t see that much time as a rookie. That said, it is at least a little worrisome that he didn’t even warrant a look with Chandon Sullivan struggling in the slot last season. One other significant issue with Jean-Charles is that he can’t just fall back on raw athletic talent, as he didn’t test particularly well outside of the bench press. A bulldog profile indeed.

While Jean Charles didn’t see much time on defense as a rookie, he was a key contributor on special teams playing on 63% of the teams snaps, and for now, that’s likely where he’ll stay. Should an injury befall one of the top 3 corners, it’s hard to be too confident in Shemar Jean-Charles filling the void.

Keisean Nixon

How acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2022
NFL experience: 4th year
2021 stats: 1 start, 11 games (right guard), 12 tackles (7 solo)

Nixon grew up in Compton, California and despite not being rated by any recruiting services, managed a star career at Arizona Western Community College where he turned himself into a sought-after JUCO recruit, eventually landing with the Gamecocks at South Carolina. There, he toiled on special teams, but made the most of his limited opportunities including a pick-six against Arkansas and another pick in coverage on Tee Higgins against Clemson. He would start and play well in his final season, with 9 PDs.

Nixon has been a relentless worker to get to this point in his professional career, but the Raiders chose not to bring him back after three years as a special teams gunner. The Packers can, of course, always use a special teams gunner, and brought him in for a look.

In coverage, Nixon is a bit of an enigma. He’s an unusual shape for a corner at just 5-10, but broad at 196 pounds, and one would expect some physicality to his game. While he does show strength at the catch point, he can struggle in man and with contact near the line, instead relying on surprising speed to compensate. He’s not a fluid mover, and he can have trouble tracking the deep ball, but as a special teams ace who can if needed, step in briefly as a defensive replacement, he’s a good fit. He moves and plays like Jarrett Bush.

Kiondre Thomas

How acquired: Signed to a reserve/future contract.
NFL experience: First year
2021 stats: 0 starts, 4 games, 1 tackle (0 solo).

Originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Browns, Thomas eventually found his way to the Chargers’ practice squad, where he had as short stint as a special teamer on the active roster.

Thomas spent three years at the University of Minnesota before moving to Kansas State as a senior, but the move didn’t help to improve his pedestrian numbers. Where Thomas does bring some intrigue is in his athletic profile, boasting 4.4 speed, but he’s extremely raw, and for now, if he’s going to make the team, it will likely be as a gunner.

Raleigh Texada

How acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent.
NFL experience: Rookie
2021 stats: (Baylor) 13 games, 1 sack, 0 INT, 34 tackles

Texada is one of the more interesting UDFAs currently on the team. He’s an older prospect having played for 5 years at Baylor, where he was technically sound, if unspectacular. While in college he was primarily a boundary corner, however he is much better equipped as a slot corner at the next level, and it’s not just due to his size. Texada is much better in tight spaces and a real asset in run support where he explodes into ball-carriers.

On top of everything else, he’s a plus athlete, boasting great speed and explosion that shows up on tape. He’s not a great prospect, but he did fly under radars at least partially because he was miscast, and if he does make some noise in camp and/or make the team, don’t be too surprised.

Rico Gafford

How acquired: Signed to a reserve/futures contract.
NFL experience: 2nd year
2021 stats: 0 starts, 3 games, 0 catches, 3 targets.

While Gafford is just entering his fourth year in the league, it’s fair to say that he’s seen it all, and done it all. A blazing fast corner from the University of Wyoming, he originally signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans in 2018. He was cut at the end of camp, but quickly caught on with the Raiders who, seeing his 4.22 speed, did the very Raiders thing of converting him into a wide receiver.

Having never played the position before, he didn’t exactly light up the box score, recording just 2 catches for 66 yards and a touchdown over his three seasons in Oakland/Las Vegas. In the middle of the 2020 season, he was waived and re-signed to the practice squad, but he was quickly stolen by Arizona, waived, signed by Buffalo, waived, signed by Denver, assigned to the practice squad, and stolen once more, by the Packers, who signed him to a futures deal, and moved him back to corner.

Given all of the position switching it’s incredibly difficult to project Gafford, but back at Wyoming he did record 6 picks over two full seasons to go with 11 PDs, so he’s not exactly starting from scratch. And that athletic profile that so tantalized the Raiders is legit.

Gafford just turned 26, and while he’s still a project, he’s at least an interesting one.

Kabion Ento

How acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019
NFL experience: 2nd year
2021 stats: N/A

To wrap up, let’s move from a cornerback-turned-wide receiver to a wide receiver-turned-cornerback. Ento served as a seldom-used deep threat for the University of Colorado, posting 20 catches for 335 yards and 2 scores over his two seasons. The Packers liked his athletic profile enough to bring him in and try him at cornerback instead, and he’s been working away on the practice squad (or injured) ever since.

Ento is tall with a nice wingspan and he boasts good speed and explosion, but he’s a liability as a tackler and hesitates to mix it up. That said, he’s steadily improved as a cover corner, highlighted by an interception against Houston in last year’s preseason as well as garnering that game’s highest defensive PFF grade. The big questions for Ento are whether he can progress enough in coverage to overcome his lack of physicality and, more importantly for a longshot player, his lack of special teams contributions.