GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander was an All-Pro in 2020. While he missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, he is universally considered one of the best defensive backs in the NFL.
New Orleans Saints star Michael Thomas is universally considered one of the best receivers in the NFL, even after missing the last season-and-a-half with an ankle injury.
Alexander vs. Thomas will be among the must-see matchups when the Packers host the Saints for joint practices on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Ultimately, these will be practice reps and nothing more. Still, Alexander recognizes their importance as he gets ready for the season.
“I always feel like I got something to prove,” Alexander said. “I don’t ever feel like I’ve got nothing to prove, because I don’t get complacent like that. But I’m excited to go against whoever next week, and I’m going to take that challenge to show them I’m the best on the field.”
Both players are elite. When last healthy in 2019, Thomas set a then-NFL record with 149 receptions. Alexander, meanwhile, allowed sub-50 percent completion rates each of the last three seasons, the only cornerback in the NFL to accomplish that. He’s a big-game performer, with two interceptions of Tom Brady in the 2020 NFC Championship Game and a highlight-feel pick in last year’s early-season showdown at San Francisco. Still only 25, the Packers made him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL by annual salary.
So, Alexander really feels like he has something to prove?
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Alexander said. “I’ve got goals I want to accomplish in this league, so I’m always going to have something to prove. If you want to be the greatest of all-time, the best, you always got to keep that chip, like (Charles) Woodson.”
Alexander leads the Packers’ elite cornerback trio that includes Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas. The Saints have a potentially elite receiver trio with veterans Thomas and Jarvis Landry and first-round pick Chris Olave.
Working on another practice field, Green Bay’s young offense will face a huge challenge against New Orleans’ powerful defense. With Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport, the Saints have a pair of pass rushers perhaps even better than Green Bay’s duo of Rashan Gary and Preston Smith. And their nickel secondary of cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Paulson Adebo, nickel C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye might rival Green Bay’s as the best in the NFL.
For Aaron Rodgers and Co., facing a defense that last season ranked fourth in scoring, fourth in yards per play, first in rushing per play, sixth in interception percentage and eighth in sack percentage will add to the critical trials by fire the offense gets facing the team’s defense.
“It’s every day that we go against our ones,” Rodgers said last week. “Defense has been pretty good just about every other day, and it’s important for us to take our lumps. This is great film and great practice going against that defense.
“Saints will be interesting. You never know what you’re going to get. We played the Texans a couple years ago. It was very basic stuff. I remember a period in the red zone they were dropping eight like every single play, and I’m like, ‘What are we doing? Are we actually getting some work in?’ Then last year against the Jets I felt like it was pretty intense. They ran some different stuff. That was maybe the familiarity with (Jets coach Robert) Saleh and Coach LaFleur. So, we’ll see what happens. The Saints and (coach) Dennis (Allen), they’ve been a very aggressive defense, so we’ll see how they play it in the two days we’re together.”
While preseason games are a great proving ground to determine bottom-of-the-depth-chart battles, teams across the NFL have turned to joint practices to provide high-quality competition for their starting players but under a more controlled environment. In a preseason game, Rodgers would be fair game for opposing pass rushers. In these practices, it will be hands off the quarterbacks and the hitting of running backs and receivers will be minimized.
“I think anytime you bring another team in to have practice days like this and you guys have been a part of them, it’s just a different intensity,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “We’re very aware of that as we approach this week and making sure we do the right things for our players and getting them ready. It’s a fantastic environment in my opinion from not only evaluation purposes for our football team but also the ability to control some of those environments and protect our guys unlike a preseason game. I’m looking forward to it, I think it’s going to be really good for us.”