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Packers draft preview: Even with young star Jaire Alexander, secondary may be a primary focus
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PACKERS | NFL DRAFT

Packers draft preview: Even with young star Jaire Alexander, secondary may be a primary focus

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alexander photo 4-26

Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander had 51 tackles and 13 passes defensed during 15 regular-season games last season. 

GREEN BAY — There is no denying the Green Bay Packers have one of the NFL’s rising cornerback stars in Jaire Alexander.

But after Alexander, who was chosen for his first Pro Bowl in 2020, just how good can general manager Brian Gutekunst really feel — even with safeties he really likes in veteran Adrian Amos and third-year man Darnell Savage — about his defensive backfield given how the cornerback depth chart looks?

Thanks in part to 2018 second-round pick Josh Jackson’s failure to emerge as an every-down player during his three seasons in ex-defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s system, the Packers really had no choice earlier this month but to bring back Kevin King to start opposite Alexander for another season.

To be fair, King, a 2017 second-round pick who was involved in two of the biggest plays to go against the Packers in their loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game, has actually played pretty well when healthy during his first four years in Green Bay.

Unfortunately, those stretches of healthy play have been fewer and farther between than the team would like, while the fan base will never forgive him for not being native son T.J. Watt, whom the Packers missed out on drafting when then-GM Ted Thompson traded out of the first round and saw Watt come off the board before Green Bay’s pick at No. 33. (According to multiple sources at the time, the Packers scouting staff wasn’t especially high on Watt, so even if Thompson hadn’t swung a deal to move back and accumulate an additional fourth-round pick, the Packers still might have passed on Watt, who has registered 49.5 sacks and forced 17 fumbles in four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Behind Alexander and King at cornerback are Chandon Sullivan, a restricted free agent who received a second-round tender and is expected to return as the nickel corner; Jackson, who perhaps will get a new lease on his football life with new coordinator Joe Barry in charge; and Ka’dar Hollman, who has done little with his intermittent chances to play on defense the past two years.

So while the Packers surely will pick up the fifth-year option for Alexander, the team’s 2018 first-round pick out of Louisville, cornerback looks like a glaring position of need that Gutekunst surely will address with at least one or two of his 10 overall draft choices — and might be the pick at No. 29 in the first round if the right cover man is there for the taking.

Then again, with needs elsewhere on the roster, Gutekunst could go a different direction in the first round and continue to put his faith in King, who might deliver on his one-year, $5 million prove-it deal ($3.75 million guaranteed) and finally become the player he’s shown flashes of being.

“Kevin’s been a really good player for us when he’s been able to be out there,” Gutekunst insisted earlier this offseason, before King re-signed with the team. “The thing that has held Kevin back is just his inability to be out there on a consistent basis. That obviously delays your development a little bit as well. So, I think it took him a little longer maybe to get to the point he’s been at the last year and a half or so.

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“I thought (he) was really kind of growing through ‘19 and into ‘20 to where his level of play was becoming more and more consistent. And then obviously he struggled through some injuries this (past) year, but he’s obviously made a big difference for us when he’s been out there. I think having him and Jaire on the corner allowed us to do some things as a defense that you can’t do all the time if you don’t have two sound corners. He’s a young, really good player.”

Even if King proves Gutekunst’s opinion of him right, the Packers still clearly need more good players at the position in a league that has become predicated on the passing game.

“It’s very much become a sub-package league,” Gutekunst acknowledged.

That means having three or four cornerbacks — and five or six total defensive backs — on the field for most snaps, with offenses trying to put more, better-quality pass catchers on the field than the opposing defense is able to effectively cover.

The 2011 Packers, who set the franchise record for scoring in quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ first of three NFL MVP seasons, are the poster children for that philosophy, having had so many quality wide receivers and tight ends that no defense was up to the task of defending that passing game when it was on point.

The 2021 Packers defense doesn’t have to worry about facing that high-powered 2011 offense, but the group does have to find better coverage options than are currently on the roster. With limited cap space, those upgrades appear likely to come from the draft.

Depth chart

23 | Jaire Alexander CB — 5-10, 196, Louisville

20 | Kevin King CB — 6-3, 200, Washington

31 | Adrian Amos S — 6-0, 214, Penn State

26 | Darnell Savage S — 5-11, 198, Maryland

39 | Chandon Sullivan CB — 5-11, 189, Georgia State

29 | Ka’dar Hollman CB — 6-0, 196, Toledo

37 | Josh Jackson CB — 6-0, 196, Iowa

34 | KeiVarae Russell CB — 5-11, 194, Notre Dame

48 | Kabion Ento CB — 6-1, 187, Colorado

46 | Stanford Samuels CB — 6-1, 187, Florida State

25 | Will Redmond S — 5-11, 186, Mississippi State

36 | Vernon Scott S — 6-2, 202, TCU

41 | Henry Black S — 6-0, 204, Baylor

Innis Gaines S — 6-1, 202, TCU

Best in class

Patrick Surtain II, Alabama

With his father having played 11 NFL seasons — during which he was selected to three Pro Bowls and recorded 37 career interceptions — Surtain has some lofty accomplishments to live up to in following his namesake. But at 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, and with three years of playing right cornerback and shutting down opposing receivers in Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban’s scheme, Surtain may very well turn out to be better than his pops.

He will definitely be drafted earlier than his dad, who was a second-round pick (No. 44 overall) in 1998. Beyond that, the younger Surtain would rather not play the comparison game.

“I just not try to compare my career to my dad’s career, but just looking at his career he had an ultimately great career,” Surtain II said before of Alabama’s pro day. “I can control what I control by just going out there and playing my game the best I can. And at the end of the day, his legacy is his legacy, and I’m just trying to build on my legacy.”

But while the son isn’t focused on outdoing his old man, there is one person who wants Surtain II to be better than the original: Dear old dad.

“It’s his time now,” the elder Surtain told Bama Insider. “I told him, ‘I want you to be better than me. I had my time, and it’s your time to shine now.’”

Best of the rest

Jaycee Horn, South Carolina; Greg Newsome II, Northwestern; Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech; Elija Molden, Washington; Richie Grant, Central Florida; Trevon Moehrig, TCU; Eric Stokes, Georgia.

Pick to click

Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State

Surtain isn’t the only second-generation cornerback set to go early in this year’s draft. Samuel Jr. is following in his dad’s footsteps, too. And he, too, will be drafted earlier than his father, who was a fourth-round pick (No. 120 overall) by the New England Patriots in 2003.

The elder Samuel won two Super Bowl titles with the Patriots, was a four-time Pro Bowl pick, a two-time first-team All-Pro selection and led the NFL in interceptions twice. He ended up intercepting 51 passes while playing 11 NFL seasons with the Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons before retiring following the 2013 season.

Samuel Jr. said following in his dad’s footsteps was never something he was pressured to do. “He played a big role in my life, (but) he just wanted me to do my own thing with how I learned. Just be self-oriented with the things I wanted to do,” he said. “He always let me do my own thing, and take my own journey.”

That journey has Samuel Jr. likely to go late in the first round or early in the second, and while he doesn’t have ideal height (5-foot-10) he is viewed as one of the best tackling corners in the draft.

“My greatest strength, I feel like, is my instincts and my ball skills. I feel that I can track the ball very well, and make plays wherever the ball is at,” Samuel Jr. said. “(But) I pride myself on being a tackling cornerback. Just being able to make plays wherever I’m at on the field, especially in nickel or at outside cornerback. I feel like, wherever you put me on the field, I’m going to play.”

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