Note: This is the eighth in a series of positional stories focused on the big story lines entering Week 1 of the NFL season.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – With Jaire Alexander, the Green Bay Packers have one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. With Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, they boast one of the top safety duos in the NFL.
Where the question lies entering the 2021 season is the rest of the secondary. In a league in which three cornerbacks is the true base defense, the Packers need better play from their other cover men if they’re going to take the next step after losing in back-to-back conference championship games.
There are options, so it’s not as if the cupboard is bare. Kevin King (unrestricted) and Chandon Sullivan (restricted) re-signed in free agency, and the first-round pick was used on Eric Stokes. The question is whether any of those three are winning options.
King has played three-quarters of the snaps just once in his career. That was in 2019, when he played 77 percent and finished among the NFL leaders with five interceptions and 15 passes defensed. While he gave up too many big plays that season – of 86 corners with 50 percent playing time, King ranked 82nd in yards and 84th in yards per catch, according to Pro Football Focus – he was a key reason why the Packers fielded a top-10 scoring defense.
Last year, however, was a major regression. He missed five games due to injuries and had zero interceptions and five passes defensed. Then came his nightmare in the NFC Championship, when he gave up two first-half touchdowns and was guilty of the critical interference penalty in the waning moments. The Packers re-signed him with a one-year bargain deal.
“Kevin is a guy that I’ve been so impressed with, because I’m big about consistency,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said on Thursday. “He shows up every day and he grinds and he works. He was dealing with some bumps and bruises this offseason and even in camp. But he showed up every single day and was locked in, was wired in. It’s been great the last week-and-a-half, two weeks, just to have him every single day out there playing.”
It's interesting to hear Barry used the word “consistency” with King because the only thing consistent with King over his first four seasons was inconsistency. To that end, the Packers took out some expensive insurance by drafting Stokes who, like King coming out of Washington, was 80 percent traits-based potential and 20 percent finished product.
Ready or not, Stokes is going to play, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said.
“If you don’t play, you lose a year. I think you get experience,” Gray said on Thursday. “That doesn’t mean he’s going to start, that doesn’t mean he’s going to do anything like that.”
“At some point in time,” Gray added, “Stokes is going to be on the field. They want to know, ‘Can he go out there and do what he’s supposed to do and we not lose a game?’ I think that’s what football players want to know. ‘Can you play at a high level? Can they cheer for you while I’m getting some Gatorade or something or taking a series off?’”
While Alexander and Savage are options for the slot, Gray said, Sullivan likely will get the first shot on Sunday. Last year, he started 10 games and played 71 percent of the defensive snaps, and finished with one interception and six passes defensed. Of the 32 slots with at least 160 coverage snaps, Sullivan ranked 10th in passer rating (89.6), 12th in yards per coverage snap (1.13) and second in snaps per reception (10.8) last year, according to PFF.
Whether the Packers lean on Alexander, King and Sullivan as their primary trio, or whether Stokes plays so well that he forces his way into the lineup, the Packers must find a quality group before a potential playoff run. Look at Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the opener vs. Dallas on Thursday. Brady threw for 379 yards and four touchdowns and led the Buccaneers to the winning points with one of his patented 2-minute drives. With Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, there might not be a better trio of receivers in the league. To contend with that group, the Packers will need King to return to form and Stokes to progress quickly.
“You can’t have enough corners,” Barry said. “To have Jaire and (King) and Eric and Sully, it’s exciting. You can’t have enough cover guys in this league. It’s been great to have Kevin back and back at 100 percent and feeling good. I’m excited for him.”