Green Bay Packers coaches remain high on Shemar Jean-Charles as potential 'star' slot corner
GREEN BAY - Chandon Sullivan has received the most snaps there, Jaire Alexander has gotten a couple and Darnell Savage is constantly bugging the coaches to give him some.
But in discussing the slot corner or “star” position, defensive backs/passing game coordinator Jerry Gray made it clear that rookie Shemar Jean-Charles could have a say in manning that position before training camp is over.
The Packers’ fifth-round pick has been working as the No. 2 slot corner since camp began and hasn’t done anything to dampen Gray’s enthusiasm toward him. The 5-10, 184-pound Jean-Charles isn’t an off-the-charts athlete (4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 35-inch vertical jump), but he’s strong for his size (19 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press) and knows how to play the position.
“We evaluated Shemar coming out of Appalachian State and I thought he did a great job in the slot,” Gray said. “I thought he was really, really knowledgeable about the game. He wasn't afraid to make tackles. When you’re a slot corner, most guys think that, ‘I'm just a cover guy.’
“And when you watch him coming out of college, that guy's tough. He makes plays.”
Sullivan, who played the slot last year in Mike Pettine’s system, gets almost all the snaps with the No. 1 defense. Alexander got two for the first time last week and probably will see more as the season goes on. Savage has yet to receive any, much to his chagrin.
“I talked to Savage and he's begging to get in,” Gray said.
New defensive coordinator Joe Barry came from the Los Angeles Rams, where defensive coordinator Brandon Staley used multiple defensive backs in the slot, including All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, depending on matchups.
Gray would like his options open because some teams put their best receiver in the slot, some teams play a lot of double tight ends and some teams run the ball a lot when they see the defense in the nickel package. He would like to maximize his options and having someone who is a natural slot corner like Jean-Charles is an advantage.
“We still got Sully, who's doing a great job,” Gray said. “Then you look at Shemar. I think Shemar has a really good chance to be in that position, too. So, you look at it, we got four guys that I think can really, really play at that level.”
The key for Jean-Charles, Gray said, will be carrying his practice performance into the preseason games, which start Saturday when the Houston Texans come to town.
Though first-round pick Eric Stokes is getting to run with the first team, it doesn’t mean he’s going to be the starting corner come opening day.
Stokes has taken a lot of lumps against the Packers’ starting offense while filling in for Kevin King, who is on the non-football injury list with a hamstring pull. The Packers are just being careful with King, who has a long injury history, so he could be back any day.
Once King gets caught up in practice, he’ll be back in his starting spot because Gray said he doesn’t punish people for being injured. If anything, he’s happy to get Stokes the work so he can prepare him for the regular season.
"“When he does come back, I think that's going to be a plus,” Gray said. “And I've been fortunate enough to be in a position like this where you've had three premier corners. And you know what, we have a decision (because) you can only play two, but guess what? That doesn't mean we can't play one every other series and then save the other guy.
“So, it's not a negative.”
The Packers have been pining for a consistent return game for quite a while and they may turn to a pair of rookies to jump-start their units.
On punt returns, receiver Amari Rodgers is first in line for the job with veteran Randall Cobb working alongside him. On kickoff returns, running back Kylin Hill is getting a long look along with second-year running back Patrick Taylor.
“It's going to play itself out but right now in the punt-return game, we're leaning toward Amari and in the kickoff return game we were really vetting, (No.) 32, Mr. Hill,” special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton said. “So, it's going to play itself out and we have a lot of other guys who are putting in work in the return in the room.”
There’s no question that Rodgers will be up on game days because of his expansive role at slot receiver, but Hill is competing for the No. 3 running back job behind Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. If Hill doesn’t have a role on offense or can’t perform any other special teams except kickoff returns, it would be hard to make him active on game day.
Taylor, who is a bigger, stronger option, may be able to play more spots on other special-teams units.
“I think when you’re looking at a 48-man roster on game days and the 53-man roster and those things, I think that's where the difficulty can lie at times,” Drayton said. “Are you going to allocate a spot for just a returner? We haven't done a lot of that in our time. You will usually have guys that have done multiple things. We'd like the versatility that gives us some flexibility.”
Expecting big things
Defensive lineman Kingsley Keke hasn’t taken a single snap in training camp, but defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery is pumped about his season.
Keke is on the non-football injury list with an ankle issue, but it’s not believed to be serious.
“I'm really excited about Keke,” Montgomery said. “I think this is going to be a breakout year for him. I think he's going to be great on all downs. This is that third year where I think he's going to make that jump. And I thought he was great in the spring. I look forward to getting him back.”
Outside linebackers coach Mike Smith has sported a cast on his right arm since the start of training camp.
Smith said he was finishing the roof on his kids’ tree house when he fell 20 feet to the ground. He said he dislocated and shattered his wrist along with suffering a concussion. He said he didn’t remember how it happened.
The doctors are clamping down on the hyperactive Smith’s activities on the practice field, which means he can’t do his time-honored hands drill that he performs with his players before every game. He has recruited former offensive lineman and current director of player engagement Grey Ruegamer to fill in for him.
“Grey’s got a little more work ahead of him,” Smith said.
Weather or not
As Saturday night’s practice approached, Packers coach Matt LaFleur found himself in the same predicament as the 34,835 fans inside Lambeau Field, confused as he tried to figure out the weather.
The stadium bowl was evacuated for several minutes before Saturday’s practice, sending fans into the concourse because of a nearby lightning strike. When festivities resumed, LaFleur was told he might have only an hour before weather again made for unsafe conditions.
“As far as the weather,” LaFleur said, “was getting a lot of bad information, obviously.”
It forced LaFleur to scrap some elements of practice, including a red-zone period and two-minute drill with backups. While practice went about 40 minutes longer than LaFleur was initially told, he ended it short of his expected time frame.
“We could still be out there probably right now,” LaFleur said, “but we adjusted some things. Once we went to the tackle portion of practice, I didn’t want to temper back that tempo that we had. It kind of throws guys for a little bit of a loop. So once we committed to that, and those guys – think especially the receiving core – were getting a little exhausted. So we decided to shut it down after that.”
LaFleur said he treated Family Night similar to a normal game day. The Packers were limited to 11 hours with players under the CBA, so the pregame routine was pushed back. After morning meetings, players are usually required to report two hours before kickoff. On Saturday, they reported an hour before practice started.
A key element providing more of a game-like feel were the fans. It was the largest crowd the Packers have had inside Lambeau Field since their 2019 NFC divisional playoff win against the Seattle Seahawks, predating COVID-19.
“What a great experience to have fans back in the stands, man,” LaFleur said. “They brought a lot of juice, a lot of energy. Until you get them back in, I don’t think you truly appreciate how much more joy and how much more fun that whole experience is to have that many people in less than ideal conditions show up to practice. That was a pretty cool deal.”