GREEN BAY — Julio Jones was open.
It was toward the end of the third quarter on Sunday, and the Green Bay Packers had built a 34-7 lead over the Atlanta Falcons, who were facing third-and-14 at their own 30-yard line.
Jones, the Falcons’ five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver — still one of the best in the business, as during the game he would become the first player in NFL history to surpass 1,400 receiving yards in a season for five straight years — had gotten behind rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander near the Packers’ 25. An on-target throw from Matt Ryan would have hit Jones in-stride for a 70-yard touchdown and might’ve reawakened the struggling Falcons.
Instead, the ball was overthrown — incomplete. And Alexander’s reaction? He raised his arms in celebration, then held his right hand to the ear hole of his helmet while encouraging the Lambeau Field crowd to cheer.
Reminded of his joyful response to an all’s-well-that-ends-well play on which he’d been beaten, Alexander laughed. That was worth celebrating?
“Yeah, for sure. Why not?” Alexander replied enthusiastically. “We just got off the field, third and long. Get the crowd into it.”
This, Packers fans, is your ultra-confident, apologize-for-nothing rookie first-round draft pick. While he might irritate opposing receivers — including some of the best in the game, having matched up with them the past several weeks — his energetic, engaging personality makes him very difficult not to like.
“Energy is contagious. It’s infectious,” Alexander said. “People are going to make plays on you. They get paid just like us. Why not celebrate the good ones?
“I’m just a competitor. I’m real competitive and, I mean, he’s a really good receiver. But I play against a lot of good receivers. And at the end of the day, they put on their pads just like I do. I’m working to be one of the greatest to do this. I mean, they had to start somewhere, just like I’m starting somewhere. So why not make my mark starting now?”
He’s been making that mark by shadowing opponents’ best receivers, having done so against the Los Angeles Rams’ Robert Woods, Minnesota’s Adam Thielen, Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, and Jones.
“I noticed his energy right from the day he got here, you know?” interim coach Joe Philbin said Monday. “And I think that seems to be just kind of a little bit of who he is. That’s a really, really positive trait to have in this game. Looks like he loves to compete. He was lining up against a pretty darn good receiver. (Jones) is about as good as there is in the game. And he certainly doesn’t lack confidence. I think that competitive nature of his and that love of the game just kind of helps probably fuel him a little bit.”
According to Pro Football Focus, which tries to assess responsibility on coverage on each play, the 5-foot-10 Alexander allowed four completions for 88 yards to Thielen, no completions to Fitzgerald and six completions for 84 yards and a touchdown to Jones. Entering the final three weeks of the season, Jones (94 receptions, 1,429 yards) and Thielen (103 receptions, 1,236 yards) are in the top five in the league statistically, and all three have at least three inches on him.
“He’s a fearless guy. The sky’s the limit,” veteran defensive back Tramon Williams said of Alexander. “You’re not trying to put him in the Hall of Fame, but it’s tough to say (he won’t make it there) because you never know how guys’ careers are going to turn out. You see all the ability, you see all the talent and you see that all the time. Some of them are capable; some of them are not. Really, only time will tell. As long as he’s healthy and he’s on that field, I think he’ll be special.”
So far this season, Alexander has drawn rave reviews from legendary New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who predicted Alexander “will be one of the top corners in the game for quite a while,” and been compared to future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Charles Woodson by Packers passing-game coordinator Joe Whitt. To Whitt, one of the things that makes Alexander special is his willingness to match up with the top receivers in the game.
“Some top-level corners in this league only wanted to play on (one) side. ‘I’ll cover this guy if he comes over here, but I’m not going to go to the side that I’m not very good at,’” Whitt said. “Then you have some guys that really don’t care. ‘You give me the best receiver, and I’ll go match him wherever he is.’
“There’s not many of them. But the ones that do, you have to take your hat off to them. Jaire has that mentality. He wants it. He’s going to get plenty of opportunity with it. Jaire has a chance. He has a chance to be as good as any in the league, he really does.”
As confident as he was coming in, Alexander didn’t necessarily expect to travel with top opposing targets this early in his career — even though he loved the idea of it. And while it’s hard to say how defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will deploy Alexander on Sunday at Chicago, he’ll be ready. And keeping track of how many completions and yards he gives up.
“It wasn’t really a thought in my mind that that would happen. I knew that eventually, if I played my cards right, I’d be where I’m at. Eventually. And sure enough, I’m at where I’m at,” Alexander said. “I didn’t come into the league thinking I’d be matching the best, but shoot, my play speaks for itself.
“For sure (I keep track). If people want to argue who’s the best corner, I’m one of the best out there. I’m always going to keep track of that because you can’t name 10 corners better than me. You can’t name five corners that are playing better than me — especially as a rookie. I say that in the most confident way.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on your local ESPN station.