GREEN BAY – Every time he crouches into his stance, Green Bay Packers rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander can feel the target on his back.
It isn’t by accident. From the start of organized team activities, his two-time MVP quarterback issued a warning. Aaron Rodgers wanted to pick on the Packers' rookie cornerback duo this spring, test Alexander and Josh Jackson to prepare them for the real thing this fall.
“I told them I’m coming after them,” Rodgers said early in the OTAs.
So far, Rodgers hasn’t hesitated to throw their way. In three open workouts, Alexander and Jackson have gotten plenty of action.
It’s impossible to know how much NFL success the duo will have, but early signs have been promising. Alexander intercepted Rodgers last week, reading an out-and-up move against receiver Geronimo Allison. When Rodgers tried to hit Allison with a back-shoulder throw, Alexander was in position to jump the pass.
Alexander said he was pleased with how quickly he diagnosed the play. After the interception, he joked it took a while for him to relinquish the football.
A pass taken from Rodgers is one to hold onto.
“It gave me a little boost of confidence,” Alexander said, “but at the same time I do realize it’s practice, and we’re both working on things to get better and improve. So I take it with a grain of salt, but I do think it was a little confidence boost.”
Jackson also had an interception last week, though it wasn’t against Rodgers. In a closed practice, Jackson said he intercepted a backup quarterback. He has used his long arms to knock away a few passes in practices open to the public.
Rodgers said he can already see contrasts in how the rookies play.
“They’re talented guys,” the quarterback said. “They’re different players. Obviously, Jaire is extremely athletic, and Josh is more of kind of an instincts guy, but they’re talented guys. Corner is going to be a really interesting position.
“I think that position went from a need to a strength.”
Alexander and Jackson aren’t the only new additions to the Packers' cornerback depth chart. They also re-signed Davon House and signed free agent Tramon Williams, whom Rodgers called the team's "best on that side of the ball." Kevin King, who has been rehabbing his shoulder after offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum, also figures to factor heavily into the team’s plans as he enters his second season.
But the group’s success could largely depend on how its two rookies develop. The Packers need more return on investing their top two draft picks on cornerbacks than they got in 2015 with Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
Joe Whitt, now the defense’s pass-game coordinator, said the Packers have emphasized playing better against the NFL’s top quarterbacks. Nobody better to practice against, then, than Rodgers.
“Twelve makes everything hard,” Whitt said. “One of the things that you’ve heard Mike (McCarthy) talk about is we have to do a greater job of defending the top five quarterbacks. Well, when you have arguably the top quarterback, it gives you more opportunity to get those quality reps against a guy. So when you play a (Tom) Brady, when you play a (Drew) Brees, when you play those other top-five-type quarterbacks, you’ve gone against that in practice and you’ve had the ups and downs with that. So it’s very valuable.”
The stage is set for some entertaining battles between the rookie corners and MVP quarterback come training camp. That’s when the competition ramps up. As Rodgers said Monday, wearing pads can be “a great equalizer.” In the no-pads practices of OTAs, it’s hard to make any significant evaluations.
That hasn’t stopped the rookies from feeling a little cocky, Rodgers noticed. Careful, he’s been known to put cornerbacks in their place.
“They’re talking a lot,” Rodgers said, “so I’m going to have to dice them up once we get down to it.
"No, I like to see the confidence, I really do. That’s how you want your corners to play, with that swagger, that confidence. (Alexander) is a little louder than (Jackson) is, but it’s fun to look on the other side of the ball and see those guys making plays.”