Eighth in a series of nine position previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers' 2018 training camp.
GREEN BAY – Relying on rookies to fill key positions on any NFL roster is always a risk.
Rookies have basically been in full-go mode 11 of the past 12 months with their college season, bowl games, combine training and offseason conditioning work behind them. Now they have to endure six weeks of training camp and another 17 weeks of an NFL season.
As the Green Bay Packers have experienced, having played so many rookies during the Ted Thompson era, the grind catches up to the young players and they either get hurt or tail off at the end of the season.
Add that to the abrupt upgrade in talent they’ll be facing in the NFL and it’s not surprising that it often takes two or more years for a cornerback to get his footing.
It is with that caveat that the Packers enter the 2018 season with hope first-round pick Jaire Alexander and second-round pick Josh Jackson, as well as the return of 2017 second-round pick Kevin King, can transform their cornerback position into a strength.
Just to make sure he was covered, rookie general manager Brian Gutekunst signed free agent Tramon Williams and re-signed veteran Davon House. The pair has started a combined 175 games and at least gives defensive coordinator Mike Pettine two guys who won’t blow coverages in the heat of regular-season games.
At safety, Pettine must figure out how he wants to use second-year utility man Josh Jones. Former defensive coordinator Dom Capers used the 6-2, 220-pound safety like a linebacker, but Pettine likes his safeties interchangeable and may play them in traditional spots.
Whatever the case, the Packers ranked 23rd in passing and 28th in third-down defense last season and are going nowhere unless that changes.
Roster locks: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, CB Kevin King, CB Jaire Alexander.
Good bets: S Josh Jones, CB Josh Jackson.
On the bubble: CB Tramon Williams, CB Davon House, CB Quinten Rollins, CB Josh Hawkins, CB Lenzy Pipkins, CB Demetri Goodson, S Kentrell Brice, S Marwin Evans and S Jermaine Whitehead.
Long shots: CB Herb Waters, CB Donatello Brown, S Raven Greene.
Biggest offseason move
Trading Damarious Randall to Cleveland and moving back and then up in the draft to select Alexander was a daring move. It was also a questionable move given that linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, safety Derwin James and end Marcus Davenport were on the board when Gutekunst traded out of the No. 14 spot. When Gutekunst selected Alexander with the 18th pick (after moving up from No. 27), the scorecard began measuring Edmunds, James and Davenport against Alexander. Some scouts think Alexander will solely be a nickel back in the NFL because he’s only 5-foot-10, but the Packers think he can play outside against big receivers, too. His speed is unquestionable and his confidence unshakable. But whether he’s the caliber of player the other three seem to be will be answered over time.
In the entire secondary, only Clinton-Dix can be considered a lock to start again. Everyone else is in competition for starting and roster spots. At cornerback, it will be a daily battle for playing time and it’s likely that over the course of training camp, players will move up and down on the depth chart. Williams and House are known commodities, so even though they may line up as starters, they’re not going to get near as much work as Alexander, Jackson, King, Pipkins and Hawkins. At safety, Brice and Jones aren’t completely different players. Both have good straight-line speed and look for knockout hits, but Brice is far more assignment-sure and shouldn’t be looked past for a starting job. If he can clean up his tackling, he could be the starter on opening day.
Keep an eye on
Jackson was a playmaker at Iowa, picking off eight passes last season and returning two for touchdowns. Others have come to the Packers with the playmaker moniker only to post mediocre turnover stats. At 6-foot, 196 pounds, Jackson has the size to match up outside with big receivers and the hand-eye coordination to get his hands on the ball. But he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds and will have to improve his bump-and-run skills to succeed in the NFL. Several scouts were shocked the Packers took Jackson because they felt he was a zone corner and wouldn’t fit Pettine’s man system. Using a second-round pick on Jackson means Gutekunst will be crossing his fingers every day that the Iowa product can function in the Packers' defense.
How much can Williams and House give Pettine? Williams is 35 and while he performed pretty well in a starting role last year with Arizona, the clock is ticking on his career. King, if he can stay healthy, will likely be one of the starters. The other will be Williams or House. The latter would have had a decent season if he had stayed healthy. But that’s been a problem for him in his two stints with the Packers. He’s only 29, but after eight years in the NFL, it’s unlikely he still runs 4.5 in the 40. Pettine will probably ride the experience Williams and House give him, but at some point he'll have to transition to the younger guys.
You’d be crazy to predict that this unit will come together and perform like a top-10 defense. It’s not going to happen with so many young faces in the group. There isn’t a shutdown corner in the bunch and some of the best corners in the NFL needed at least one year of part-time play before they caught on to the NFL game. Expect a lot of mistakes from the rookies, just like there were three years ago when Randall and Rollins were the top draft picks. At best, Pettine will have a group that can limit blown coverages and keep teams from completing long passes against them. A lot will depend on how quickly he plays the young players.