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2020 NFL Draft: Don’t be surprised if the Packers take a nickel cover defender early

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Tramon Williams hasn’t been re-signed, and the rest of the nickel defenders, be it corners or safeties, are street free agents and UDFA’s. Mike Pettine prizes coverage and there are some intriguing players who could bolster this defense.

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Penn State v Minnesota
Antoine Winfield Jr. may be small, but he was one of the best playmakers in college football last year.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Not another defensive back. Frustration over the development of Kevin King, Josh Jackson, even going back to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix clouds the truth about the current Green Bay Packers roster: they could use some more players who can cover. It’s what we hear so often about linebacker and few players generates more ire among Cheesehead Nation than not T.J. Watt, King, yet the consensus around Green Bay heading into the draft is defensive back won’t, and more to the point shouldn’t be, a focus for the team.

Don’t be so sure that Brian Gutekunst, Mike Pettine and the franchise agree on that.

We don’t need to solve the coverage vs. pass rush debate to understand how critical speed, versatility, and cover ability are to Pettine’s defense. His desire to be multiple informs every decision the team makes building the roster. It’s foundational to his philosophy. Sub-package is base for the Packers and most teams in the NFL. That part is settled. The formation the Packers played above all others last year involved just one down lineman. Nickel corner/nickel safety, these are starting positions for Pettine, and impactful ones at that.

Raven Greene, Ibraheim Campbell, and Will Redmond combined to played 50.4% of snaps as that third safety. Campbell and Greene looked more like hybrid linebackers, while Redmond played more deep safety, allowing Adrian Amos to slide into the box where he’s better suited to thump in the run game. Even Chandon Sullivan, ostensibly a deep backup safety and cornerback on the depth chart, played nearly 34% of snaps because of his versatility to play corner and safety, combined with Pettine’s affinity toward ultra-small sub-package personnel.

To wit, nickel corner Tramon Williams played nearly 34 of defensive snaps and played brilliantly much of the season. If he wants to keep playing, his performance in 2019 offers more than enough incentive for Gutekunst to bring him back, but considering the unique skills of some of these prospects, Green Bay could decide the prudent track is to get younger and more versatile.

There’s also a pedigree conversation to have with these positions. Could a healthy Greene or Campbell handle the job? Probably. Is Williams ageless enough to produce at a solid level in 2020? He’s meticulous about taking care of his bodthy, so it seems likely. But Greene is a former UDFA and the Packers signed Campbell as a street free agent. Chandon Sullivan is both of those things and even Redmond, a former top-100 pick, signed off the street.

A recent Pro Football Focus data study found it’s the weak points on defense, how few you have, that decide success, not how many stars you have. In other words, is “good enough” really good enough when it comes to players who have to be on the field so often? An infusion of talent could buoy a unit that relied heavily on its pass rush last year to get off the field.

The Packers met with at least eight safeties at the combine in Indianapolis, including likely top-100 selections Antoine Winfield Jr, K’Von Wallace, Ashtyn Davis, and Jeremy Chinn. Excellent testing sent teams and evaluators back to the tape on players like Chinn and Wallace, who weren’t necessarily top-100 guys coming into Indy. Add options like Grant Delpit, Xavier McKinney, Kyle Dugger, and Terrell Burgess to this list and suddenly there are myriad options for the Packers to find a do-it-all nickel defender.

There are two possible fields of thought on how the Packers could attack a talent acquisition. The first is finding a safety capable of either allowing Darnell Savage to play some slot cornerback or doing so himself. Winfield, Wallace, Davis and Burgess all offer such versatility, with Davis likely being more a back-end safety allowing Savage to cover in the slot.

Instead of going to a true nickel formation with an extra cornerback, the Packers could add a third safety, play with that single inside linebacker, and be able to cover with the extra overhang defender while playing bigger upfront. In essence, it’s replacing Tramon Williams with someone who plays safety as well, killing two birds with one stone to a certain degree.

On the other side—and in some ways that’s a false choice as the Packers could theoretically do both— Gutekunst could choose to upgrade that nickel linebacker spot. Turn Ibraheim Campbell into Delpit, Chinn, Dugger, or McKinney. Those guys can play deep as well, cover some, and blitz. With the exception of McKinney, they’re bigger bodies than someone like Sullivan or Redmond, giving them a better chance when they have to stick their nose in with pulling guards to defend the run.

Going this route also subverts the needs at linebacker. Christian Kirksey will be the main guy inside and he’ll likely be next to a hybrid player most of the time.

Receiver will be the sexy pick at 30, while offensive tackle looks the most pragmatic. Linebacker isn’t out of the question early, and Green Bay put in considerable effort at the combine on Day 2 defensive linemen. But with all the focus on these positions in the draft, and those three offer premier talent in this class, Gutey could find value with one of these extremely versatile young talents.