GREEN BAY, Wis. – The American Professional Football Association rebranded itself the National Football League 100 years ago. Countless thousands of players have suited up for NFL teams over the previous century.
Few have a story as remarkable as Green Bay Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas.
At this time last year, Douglas, a fifth-year pro with 33 starts under his belt, was gearing up for his first training camp with the Houston Texans.
Exactly two months from today, Douglas suited up in the preseason finale for the Las Vegas Raiders. He forced a fumble.
The Texans finished the season ranked 21st in opponent passer rating. The Raiders were 24th. Douglas wasn’t good enough to make those rosters. He wasn’t good enough to make any roster. He settled for a spot on the practice squad of the Arizona Cardinals, who wound up 19th in opponent passer rating.
The Packers, reeling from the loss of Jaire Alexander to a serious shoulder injury, tried but failed to acquire former All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore. About an hour after Gilmore landed with the Panthers, the Packers announced they had signed Douglas off Arizona’s practice squad.
You know the rest of the story. Douglas, who had five interceptions in his first four seasons and zero the previous two, picked off five passes in 12 games with the Packers. He broke up a career-high 13 passes. He scored the first two touchdowns of his career. Ranking 181st among cornerbacks in salary-cap charge, he finished among the league leaders with a 45.3 percent completion rate and 5.3 yards per target, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Gilmore, coming off an injury, played in eight games with three starts. He was really good when on the field (43.8 percent completions, according to SIS) but his playing time has gone from 952 snaps in 2019 to 632 in 2020 to 305 in 2021, and his passes defensed have plunged from a league-high 20 in 2019 to three in 2020 to two in 2021.
At the end of the season, Douglas said he hoped he could re-sign with the Packers. When Green Bay traded Davante Adams to create additional cap space, it gave Douglas a three-year deal.
“I was hoping,” Douglas said during OTAs. “I didn’t know. You never know, the business. But I was hoping I’d be here.”
With a healthy Alexander and a year of experience for 2021 first-round pick Eric Stokes, the Packers might have the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL.
“We’re trying to be the best secondary,” he said. “Stokes, that’s my dog. He works hard like me. That’s what I love. Anybody who competes a lot, I like that. Ja, as much as he wasn’t playing because he was hurt, he always stayed around. I always asked him questions and he was always available. He always helped me through things when I asked him questions and stuff. When I called him, he always answered. That was big for me.”
While linebacker De’Vondre Campbell was voted first-team All-Pro, an argument could be made that Douglas was the team’s defensive MVP. His first interception, at Arizona, saved a victory. An interception against Cleveland killed the Browns’ potential game-winning drive. His pick-six against the Rams loomed large in a 36-28 victory. Without just those big plays, the Packers might have finished 10-7.
In a Next Gen Stats ranking of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, Douglas was third.
“His ability to make timely plays on the ball pushed his targeted EPA into the top three among defenders eligible for these rankings at -22.7, and a tight-window percentage north of 29 further emphasized his ability to shut down pass catchers in coverage,” wrote NFL.com’s Nick Shook.
At minicamp, Douglas got some work in the slot, with Alexander and Stokes serving as the perimeter corners. It’s a spot he’s barely played in his five seasons. Last year, his slot experience was exactly four snaps.
“He’s got that dog mentality that we’re looking for,” coach Matt LaFleur said when asked about Douglas moving inside.
Wherever Douglas lines up in 2022, the Packers will need more of his superlative play if they’re going to overcome the loss of Adams and stay in the championship conversation.
“We’re trying to be the best defense,” Douglas said. “I think we’ve got the pieces, we’re coming along, we’re getting it, we’re grinding. We’ve still got another month of going back home, getting our body right, get in the best shape we can get in. But we’re going to try to make a run for it.”