Training camp is less than two weeks away for the Green Bay Packers. As part of my preview, I will be highlighting all 91 players on the Packers roster as I make my way through each position group, taking a look at what I’ve seen during the offseason programs, where things stand, expectations, and more. I’ll also be making a final roster prediction as well.
Up next are the cornerbacks, a position group for the Packers that is loaded with talent. With Eric Stokes still working his way back from injury, Matt LaFleur has already told us that Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas will be playing outside with Keisean Nixon in the slot.
I go into greater detail here on what possible options are, but one big question that will have to be answered is how Barry will divide playing time between his top four cornerbacks when Stokes returns. At the end of the day, it’s a good problem to have because it means there is a lot of talent.
For defensive coordinator Joe Barry, it’s about striking a balance between running his defensive scheme, which uses primarily zone coverages, and making sure he is putting his players in the best position to be successful. With an aggressive, playmaking cornerback room, playing soft does not best utilize the collective strengths of this group. Also, Alexander and Stokes are best in man, and while it was a small sample size, Nixon also held up well in man last season, so how from a zone heavy scheme does Barry go about putting this group into a more consistent position to make plays?
After an up and down first half of the season, some of which was inflicted by Barry’s late adjustments and play calling but there was also a lot of miscommunication in the secondary, we saw much improved play from the unit as a whole during the last handful of games. In part, this was due to a greater usage of cover-2 and cover-6 looks. Overall, the cornerbacks were better positioned to make plays and we saw them take advantage of that with a bevy of interceptions over those final few weeks.
Of course, always winning the turnover battle is important but this year with a first time starting quarterback, it is at a premium. Turnovers mean points off the board for opponents, extra possessions for Jordan Love, and oftentimes good starting field position. As I just referenced, the Packers did this well during the final five games but their ability to create turnovers for much of the season was sporadic.
Collectively, there is no reason why the Packers cornerback room can’t be one of the best in football.
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The 2022 season was another impressive year for Jaire Alexander. He allowed a completion rate of only 60% on 71 targets and came away with five interceptions, four of which came in the fourth quarter of games, and eight pass breakups. He also continued to be a sound tackler, despite suffering a shoulder injury the year before, missing fewer than 10% of his total attempts, according to PFF.
Alexander is at his best when in man coverage. He’s fearless, a ruthless competitor, and packed with confidence. He is at his best when in man coverage, however, as we know, the Joe Barry defense uses zone coverage. Barry’s defense stems from the Vic Fangio system, which uses a heavy dose of cover-2 zone, and is the specific type of defense Matt LaFleur wanted in Green Bay. So I wouldn’t expect Green Bay to all of a sudden become a heavy-man coverage team.
One of the defensive changes we did see towards the end of last season was letting Alexander line up on the side of the field where an opponent’s top receiver was before the snap and then playing zone from there. It’s important to note though, that Alexander was still not traveling with top receivers, and if the offense used motion, they could move their receiver away from him. At that point, man and zone principles become mixed and can cause some confusion in responsibilities.
Hopefully, we see more of this strategy that was deployed at the end of the season, and it’s also not as if the Packers never played man, Alexander played about 21% of his total snaps in that capacity, so hopefully, we see a bit more of that as well to truly maximize his abilities. Also, with a cornerback room with this much talent, if Green Bay is going to play zone, there’s no reason to play as soft as they do at times. Trust these guys to make plays.
Rasul Douglas began the season playing primarily in the slot, where he had fewer than 100 snaps prior to last season. Once Eric Stokes suffered his season-ending injury, Douglas was back on the boundary, and we saw his playmaking presence return. Douglas finished the season with four interceptions, all of which came in the fourth quarter and three of which came lined up on the boundary. He also had seven pass breakups.
While Alexander is at his best in man, and Douglas can hold his own playing that way, he is at his best in zone. With Stokes beginning training camp on the PUP list, Douglas will continue to play on the boundary, but how the Packers handle playing time and responsibilities when Stokes returns remains to be seen.
For Douglas, this could include continuing to stay on the boundary, some mixture of boundary and slot duties depending on the matchup, or perhaps, even some snaps at safety. That is a position where the Packers have major question marks, and during the offseason, Brian Gutekunst commented on how Douglas’ skill set fits well with the typical responsibilities that a safety has.
After an impressive rookie season in 2021, Stokes was slumping prior to his injury. Through eight full games, he allowed a completion rate of 84% on 25 targets and had no pass breakups or interceptions. Missed tackles were also a problem at times as well.
Hopefully, some of Stokes’ underlying numbers from last season show someone who is in store for a bounceback. He was very sticky when playing in both man and zone, but he does have to improve his ball skills, and he ranked third among qualified cornerbacks in snaps per target, per PFF.
Stokes is currently on the PUP list and can be activated at any time before the regular season begins. If he starts the season on PUP, he has to miss at least the first four games. As already alluded to, it’s going to be interesting to see how Green Bay works Stokes back into the mix. He has little slot experience, and putting him full-time in that role either means Douglas is in the slot, at safety, or perhaps at times, even on the sidelines.
With Stokes out, as Matt LaFleur has already told us, Keisean Nixon will be the team’s primary nickel cornerback. When lined up in the slot last season, Nixon was, of course, targeted heavily, with his counterparts being Alexander and Douglas. Nixon was able to limit pass catchers, however, to just over 10 yards per catch. He also added a physical presence to the run game as a willing tackler.
This season, the Packers are set to face some very good receivers from the slot, including Davante Adams, Jerry Jeudy, Christian Kirk, Chris Godwin, and others.
Along with his defensive responsibilities, Nixon was an All-Pro return man in 2022. But even with how good he was in that role, LaFleur said that his primary responsibility is on defense, so I do wonder if we could see him handling only one of kick or punt returns instead of both, and then Jayden Reed taking the other. Also, if we are going to see Nixon on offense, something he has been wanting, he will first need to show that he can handle everything thrown at him on defense and special teams.
Perhaps an under-the-radar name, but one that Packers fans should know. Ballentine became a core special teams player during the second half of last season, and despite ranking 18th on the team in total snaps, he finished sixth in solo tackles.
During offseason programs, with Stokes sidelines, Ballentine was the clear fourth cornerback option behind Alexander, Douglas, and Nixon and recorded a pass breakup and two near interceptions in those open practices. Although not a roster lock by any means, given his special teams play and where I believe he stands on the depth chart, Ballentine is positioned well to make this team.
Carrington Valentine brings more athleticism and length to the Packers cornerback room and is someone who is not afraid to be put on an island in coverage. In fact, he thrives in that environment. In his last season at Kentucky, Valentine allowed a completion rate of just 55% on 65 targets, including four interceptions and six pass breakups.
During OTAs and minicamp, Valentine began behind Ballentine and Shemar Jean-Charles in terms of snaps. But by the end, he was ahead of Jean-Charles. With Douglas and Alexander both absent from voluntary OTAs, Valentine got some valuable snaps against the Packers’ starting offense.
In one red zone session, Valentine had back-to-back breakups on passes from Jordan Love intended for Romeo Doubs. When asked about the cornerback room as a whole, LaFleur specifically mentioned Valentine and that he had done an “unbelievable job” this Spring.
A 2020 fifth-round pick by the Packers, Jean-Charles faces a potential uphill battle to make this year’s roster. He was a regular member of the special teams unit in 2022 until suffering an injury that sidelined him for a few weeks. Upon his return, he was unable to find a regular role and was often a healthy scratch on game days.
As already mentioned, by the end of minicamp, it sure looked like Jean-Charles had fallen behind Valentine on the depth chart, which if true, makes him, at best, the seventh option. What Jean-Charles does have going for him is his slot experience, which this cornerback group as a whole does not have a lot of.
There weren’t any standout plays from Kiondre Thomas during offseason programs, but he’s someone to keep your eyes on this Summer. If you recall last preseason, Thomas put together a very nice performance, allowing just one catch on seven targets with two pass breakups. He was also a very sound and willing tackler and played 30 special teams snaps over three games.
The Packers signed Tyrell Ford to a futures contract back in January for the 2023 season. Ford comes from the CFL where he was a 2022 draft pick by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and spent his college football career in Canada as well. In 18 games last season, Ford totaled three tackles on defense and 10 on special teams.
The Packers brought in William Hooper for a tryout during rookie minicamp and promptly signed him after. Hooper went undrafted this past offseason out of FCS Northwestern State. At 6’0″ – 185 pounds, Hooper was a very good tackler, missing just five of his 75 career attempts, and for his career, allowed a completion rate of 45% while coming away with two interceptions. He also has almost 300 special teams snaps as well.
Jaire Alexander, Eric Stokes, Rasul Douglas, Keisean Nixon, Corey Ballentine, and Carrington Valentine
Depending on whether or not Stokes begins the season on the PUP list could change this. Perhaps in that scenario, Green Bay keeps only five cornerbacks, or maybe Thomas or Jean-Charles earns that sixth spot until he returns. But eventually, my guess is that this is what the cornerback room will look like.
We know that the first four players listed are roster locks. After that, as already mentioned, Ballentine’s special teams play, coupled with where I believe he currently sits on the depth chart, will lead to him making this team. Valentine, meanwhile, is a draft pick this year – which does matter – and he has special teams experience from college, has caught LaFleur’s attention, is a young, high-upside player, and I would consider him the fourth boundary cornerback option after offseason programs.