GREEN BAY – First day in pads, and Kevin King is on the Green Bay Packers practice field. That, itself, might seem like some small miracle.
Injuries forced King to spend more time off the field than on it in his two seasons. He was held out of any team reps this offseason. From the outside, it seemed plausible King might not be ready for training camp. The sideline has been a familiar home.
Now the Packers’ potential top cornerback is on Ray Nitschke Field, lined up against Jake Kumerow in one-on-one drills. Kumerow, an Aaron Rodgers favorite, starts upfield about 10 yards but cuts back hard toward the sideline. King sticks with him. The receiver known for his route running tries again, sprinting down the left sideline but stopping, on a dime, and cutting back toward Rodgers. King is still there.
Rodgers’ throw, perfectly located toward Kumerow’s back shoulder, is a ball he has completed many times. Maybe against most corners, he’d complete this one. But King’s speed has enabled him to stick to Kumerow’s hip, and his length – with 32-inch arms almost identical to pass rusher Za’Darius Smith’s – allowed him to knock away Rodgers’ pass.
“He stayed with me on my first little move,” Kumerow recalled later, sitting at his locker. “Came to the top of the route, and Kev’s long. He’s quick, too. I could have done a better job of fighting through the contact and coming back to the ball, but Kev’s long and he threw a hand on me, and it slowed me up a bit.
“I’ll give it to him. It was good defense.”
It was a glimpse, if only in one rep, of why King’s potential remains so tantalizing. So fast (4.43) for his size (6-3), King has a rare skill set. He also combines a solid press technique, able to keep his shoulders square to a receiver with quick feet, and the savvy to play off coverage. King reads receivers like a book, learning their tendencies. It’s how, King said, he could predict Kumerow might try a stutter-comeback route. He noticed a tell, which he’ll just keep to himself.
Then there’s King’s swagger, a confidence he has exuded since early in his rookie season. He’s covered Julio Jones. He’s matched A.J. Green. And that was just the first month of his career.
There’s no play King thinks he can’t make.
Like the rep against Kumerow. Good coverage. Great anticipation. King broke up Rodgers’ pass.
“I’ve got to pick it,” he said.
At a young cornerback position loaded with potential, if still untapped, King’s presence might be most important. If that sounds like a stretch, considering Jaire Alexander is coming off a strong rookie season and Tramon Williams is the elder statesman, just know the Packers receivers see it. “He’s rare,” Geronimo Allison said. “A God-given talent.”
Or as Kumerow put it: ”I think he’s the toughest guy to get open against.”
King has the repertoire to be an elite corner. There’s just one problem, and it’s the same reason a corner this big, this fast, this all-around skilled slipped out of the draft’s first round.
He can’t cover anybody from the sideline.
King wants to discuss his extensive injury history like he wants to sit on a bed of hot coals. But this is unavoidable: in 32 possible career games, King has played 15. Not even half. Google his name, and the second-most-searched item behind “Kevin King Packers” is “Kevin King injury.”
That rookie season, the one with so much promise, ended when King was placed on injured reserve with a bad left shoulder after 10 games. His second season again ended on IR. This time, an assortment of groin and hamstring injuries and a bad right shoulder limited King to just six games.
Everyone in the Packers’ locker room sees King’s talent. They also know the injury history.
“When he is healthy,” Allison said, “he plays at a top-notch level at corner. That’s what makes him so vital to the defense. If you look back, Kev has been one of those guys that’s manned the other team’s best. So him being able to be that guy that follows the No. 1 receiver, and then you’ve got guys like Jaire that’s over there that’s commanding the other side. They have so many weapons over there.”
King said he’s fine now, that his body feels good as camp intensifies. He tightened his diet this offseason. He also bulked up almost 10 pounds, pushing his weight over 200. King hopes this is the season, finally, he can stay on the field.
If he does, King could be heading for a breakout. Sporadic snaps in his first two seasons weren’t conducive to his development. King has played well, handled tough assignments, but he has just one career interception. It’s hard to make game-changing plays when you’re not in the game.
King said the next step for him is creating more turnovers. While he was unable to take team reps this spring, he worked on his ball skills extensively. He caught projectiles from the JUGS machine. He worked on catching footballs on the move.
“I’m just trying to show that I can go out there and play football,” King said. “All that is a part of it. Being a great defensive back means getting the ball. I want to be a great defensive back, so I want to get the ball. It’s really simple.
“The game of football is about the ball.”
It’s also about staying on the field. This season, King hopes he finally does.