GREEN BAY – Three years ago, determined to build the foundation of their pass coverage, the Green Bay Packers channeled their most valuable resources into drafting cornerbacks.
In the first round of the 2015 draft, former general manager Ted Thompson selected an athletic, undersized safety to be the Packers' slot corner. Almost 24 hours later, the Packers doubled down and drafted a ball-hawking corner with limited college experience. Together, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins were the future, expected to lead the Packers secondary for years to come.
It instead was a spectacular failure.
The Packers traded Randall to the Cleveland Browns earlier this spring. Rollins, recovering from a torn Achilles, almost has as many surgeries as interceptions. Their inability to develop into what they were drafted to be – the future of the Packers' secondary – forced successor Brian Gutekunst to rebuild in his first draft as general manager.
One day after drafting a slot corner, Gutekunst took a corner who might start on the perimeter early in his career. The Packers doubled down at the position for the second time in four drafts, selecting Iowa’s Josh Jackson with the No. 45 overall pick in the second round one day after taking Louisville’s Jaire Alexander with the 18th overall pick in the first.
Gutekunst said he didn’t enter Friday planning to take another cornerback. Instead, he stuck to his draft board, drafting the best player available regardless of position.
“It wasn’t the plan,” Gutekunst said. “I think it was just one of those things where we got lucky and were able to take a player we didn’t expect to be there.”
The Packers, who traded their original third-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks to move up in Thursday’s first round, executed another trade later Friday to return to the third round. They drafted Vanderbilt linebacker Oren Burks with the 88th overall pick, giving the Carolina Panthers picks Nos. 101 (fourth round) and 147 (fifth). Burks, a former safety, is as athletic an inside linebacker as the Packers have had in some time. He ran a 4.59-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine, with a 39.5-inch vertical leap and 131-inch broad jump.
The Packers hope Burks will lock down their midfield coverage in subpackage defenses.
It’s the second straight year the Packers drafted defensive players with their first three picks, but their emphasis on cornerback was especially significant. Even if they didn’t plan to double down at the position, the Packers know through their own dismal, recent history it’s impossible to have enough good corners.
"We all know the situation as far as getting depth at that position,” team scout Alonzo Dotson said, “and we definitely did that today."
If it works, the Packers maximized the value of their two most important draft picks this spring.
Though they have several other roster needs – and several Day 3 picks to address them – there’s no question the Packers are a better team if Alexander and Jackson join second-year corner Kevin King to significantly improve their pass coverage. With veterans Tramon Williams and Davon House also on the roster to serve as mentors, the Packers have a blend of young talent and veteran experience.
It doesn’t mean the Packers’ plan in this draft will work. Only three years ago, they surely thought Randall and Rollins would be pillars on which their pass coverage would be built. There are similarities with Alexander and Jackson, enough to give pause.
Alexander, like Randall, has plus athleticism but lacks size. At 5-10 1/4, Alexander is a quarter inch below former Packers GM Ron Wolf’s minimum height requirement for the position, a guideline the franchise has followed almost without exception for close to three decades. Randall was over the minimum height at 5-11, but barely. His lack of size was an issue with the Packers, especially in the slot where he needed to support against the run. Alexander will have to prove his lack of size won’t be an issue in the NFL.
Jackson, like Rollins, was a ball hawk with limited college experience. He started just one season at Iowa, same as Rollins at Miami (Ohio). That season couldn’t have gone better: Jackson led the nation with eight interceptions in 2017, including five in a two-week stretch last November against Ohio State and Wisconsin. Rollins was third in the nation with seven interceptions in 2014.
But to expect Alexander and Jackson to follow the same trajectory as Randall and Rollins would be ignoring their differences. Randall was a college safety transitioning to cornerback; Alexander was a cornerback for all three seasons at Louisville. Rollins, who only played one season of college football in the Mid-American Conference, had far less football experience than Jackson.
“I think those are two completely different situations,” Gutekunst said. “I think the two players that we picked yesterday and today, we’re very high on their upside. They’re very good college players, they’re very good athletes. So I don’t really want to compare any of them.
“Rosters evolve, and this was chance to beef up our secondary. We think we did that.”
In Alexander and Jackson, Gutekunst drafted vastly different corners. He said both will be trained to play perimeter and slot, ensuring the Packers pass defense will be prepared against the possibility of injuries. Ideally, they would fill different roles.
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With a 4.38 40 at the combine that ranked seventh among defensive backs, Alexander brings speed to the Packers' secondary. By the stopwatch, he’ll be the fastest player on the Packers' roster this fall, and his quickness should settle in nicely at the slot.
Speed – or lack of it – may be the biggest question with Jackson’s game. He has good height at 6 feet, 3/8 inches. With 31 1/8-inch arms, Jackson’s ability to press off the snap helps him win leverage over opponents at the line of scrimmage, and Dotson said he finishes plays like a receiver.
"It goes back to his awareness and IQ for the game,” Dotson said. “He knows how to cut things off and leverage routes. The speed never really worried us because he's just so smart and he's always in the right position to play the ball. Obviously, the end result is getting the ball and he will do that."
If Jackson does the same with the Packers, he and Alexander could form the future of their secondary. It’s a re-do for a team that couldn’t accomplish the same three years ago, but perhaps this time will be different.
Jackson already knows his newest teammate well, he said. During the pre-draft process, he got to know Alexander well. He called the Packers first-round pick a good friend, and believes they can be a solution for a team whose need for cornerbacks seems to never change, no matter how many they draft.
“We both have a great hunger inside of us,” Jackson said. “I expect for us to come out there and work as hard as we can.”