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Four Days Until Training Camp: Cornerbacks Preview

Can Jaire Alexander take the next step after an All-Pro season? Can Kevin King stay healthy? Can Eric Stokes win a starting job? And who will man the slot?
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers training camp starts on July 27, with the first practice on July 28. Our Training Camp Countdown series continues with the ninth of our positional previews, the cornerbacks.

Packers Cornerback Depth Chart Quick Reads

Jaire Alexander: Alexander went from all-rookie as a first-round pick in 2018 to Pro Bowl alternate in 2019 to Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro in 2020. According to Pro Football Focus, 78 corners played at least half of the passing snaps in 2020. He ranked sixth with 15.1 snaps per reception, third with 0.64 yards per snap and fifth with a 68.3 passer rating. Alexander saved his best for last. In Week 16 against Tennessee, he allowed 1-of-5 passing for 10 yards. In Week 17 against Chicago, he allowed 3-of-5 passing for 7 yards. In the divisional win over the Rams, he allowed 1-of-2 passing for minus-3 yards. In the championship game against Tampa Bay, he allowed 1-of-5 passing for 19 yards and two interceptions. Those were the first interceptions since Week 1, if you want to ding him on something. He won’t turn 25 until Feb. 9.

Kevin King: King, on the other hand, trended the wrong way last season. In 2019, he finally stayed healthy after playing less than one-third of the defensive snaps his first two seasons. The result? King ranked among the NFL leaders with five interceptions and 15 passes defensed. Last season, however, was a painful one. Limited to 11 games by a quad injury, King had zero interceptions and five passes defensed. After giving up completion rates of 59.1 percent in 2017, 52.2 percent in 2018 and 60.2 percent in 2019, King gave up a 70.3 percent completion rate in 2020, according to PFF. Then came the NFC Championship Game, with two touchdowns allowed and the killer grab on third down in the final moments.

Chandon Sullivan: Sullivan might be the most underrated player on the team. Manning the slot for all 16 games, he recorded 40 tackles, one interception and finished fourth on the team with six passes defensed. According to Pro Football Focus, of the 32 corners who played at least 160 coverage snaps from the slot, Sullivan ranked 10th in passer rating (89.6), 12th with 1.13 yards per coverage snap and second with 10.8 snaps per reception allowed. He finished fourth in “coverage success rate” among slots, according to Next Gen Stats. You could do better – which is why the team used a fifth-round pick on Shemar Jean-Charles – but you could definitely do worse.

Eric Stokes: Stokes was drafted in the first round because of his size (6-0), speed (4.29) and production (four interceptions, four additional breakups during his final season at Georgia). Sports Info Solutions charged him with 10-of-26 passing, just 38.5 percent. In other words, he almost defended as many passes (eight) as he allowed completions (10). On a per-game basis, he ranked third in the draft class in completions (1.1) and second in yards (12.1). He’s come a long way since a Georgia coach saw the 160-pound running back win the 100 meters at the Georgia state track meet.

Josh Jackson: The Packers doubled up with Alexander and Jackson with the top picks in 2018. Alexander is a stud but Jackson is trending toward dud. Jackson took his lumps as a rookie but played in all 16 games with 10 starts and 718 snaps. He showed his nose for the football by breaking up 10 passes. In 2019, he played only 103 defensive snaps in 14 games (zero starts) and didn’t break up any passes. In 2020, he played 331 snaps in 11 games (five starts) and had twice as many pass interference penalties (four) as breakups (two). After starting five games for an injured King last season, he was barely seen again.

Shemar Jean-Charles: The fifth-round pick from Appalachian State dominated as a senior, though his success came against a bunch of quarterbacks and receivers who’ll never see an NFL training camp. According to Sports Info Solutions, he allowed just a 35 percent completion rate (19-of-54) for 311 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks targeted him 35 times in single coverage and were rewarded with only five completions. On passes thrown 10-plus yards downfield, he allowed just 6-of-34 passing.

Ka’dar Hollman: A sixth-round pick in 2019, Hollman went from four regular-season snaps as a rookie to 108 in 2020, when he played in 14 games with one start. He broke up two passes in Game 4 vs. Atlanta and logged 77 snaps in Game 8 against San Francisco and Game 9 against Jacksonville. Sports Info Solutions charged him with just a 33.3 percent catch rate. He fell off the face of the earth, though, as an inactive for both playoff games behind a player the Packers released in May.

Kabion Ento: A relatively unproductive receiver at Colorado, Ento switched sides of the ball upon arriving in Green Bay as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He had a promising rookie training camp and spent the year on the practice squad. He spent last season on injured reserve, a blow to his development. “There’s a little bit of a learning curve there but we liked the way he’s progressed,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said at the end of training camp last summer. At 6-foot-1 3/8 and with a 41.5-inch vertical, he’s well worth another shot.

Stanford Samuels: Samuels has the pedigree. He was a two-year starter at Florida State, where his father starred before embarking on a career in the CFL. The younger Samuels recorded eight interceptions in three seasons, including four as a sophomore in 2018. At the 2020 Scouting Combine, he ran a plodding 4.65 in the 40 and went undrafted. Samuels spent his rookie season on the practice squad, logging 13 defensive snaps during two midseason roster elevations.

Big Story Lines at Cornerback

One: Can Alexander cement his status as one of the top few cornerbacks in the NFL? There’s no reason to believe he won’t but there’s a lot at stake financially this season as Alexander seeks a long-term extension. Sometimes, that impacts players, who go searching for big plays and highlight-reel performances and start pressing when those plays aren’t made.

“I will look and say ‘OK, where do you want to compete and where do you want to be?’” Gray said. “We’ve communicated a couple of times about his goals, and the thing I’ve told him is his biggest problem is going to be him. Right now, you’re sitting on the top of the mountain, you’re one of the top corners in this league, how do you get back there? There’s going to be steps that you have to take to get back there. It’s not easy because everybody is going to be go at you now. If they see any kink in your game, then they will start throwing at you. He has to be ready. He has to fight being an All-Pro right now. And that means can I go out there and do it again? Then people will say it’s not luck; he actually knows how to become an All-Pro football player and do it more than one time.”

Two: Can King retain his starting job, or will Stokes seize his opportunity? King’s 2020 season was a nightmare on the field and financially. With no market in free agency, he returned to Green Bay on a one-year deal worth $5 million. If King can stay healthy, he’ll be tough to beat. Health, however, has always gotten in his way. In his four seasons, he’s played a little over 50 percent of the defensive snaps.

“I’m excited about him,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said of King. “I’ve always been a fan. Loved him when he came out. We did a lot of work on him at the previous place I was at. Very happy to be working with him. And Stokes, I’m excited about him. He’s a big, tall, fast rookie that’s got great length. Those are traits Kevin and Eric [both possess]. You can’t coach length. You can’t coach with Eric, 4.28 or whatever he ran [in the 40]. Those are traits that are great to have.”

Three: How will the team’s “Star” search end? Barry calls the slot position the “Star.” Sullivan will be the obvious front-runner. However, if King returns to form and Stokes proves to be a quick study, don’t rule out the Packers moving Alexander into the slot and going with King and Stokes on the perimeter. Jean-Charles looked a bit like a fish out of water during the offseason practices but, if he settles into the competition, he could push Sullivan.

“It’s a unique position because you’ve got to be able to play man, you’ve got to be able to play zone,” Barry said. “And when I say zone, you’ve got to be able to play like a linebacker almost. You’ve got to be involved in the run game and the run fits. We’ll ask our nickel to be involved in the pressure package, so it’s a unique position. We’ve got a bunch of guys that are learning it.”

Four: Former NFL coach Jim Mora Jr. calls it “DB Panic Mode.” The Packers used a first-round pick on Stokes and a fifth-round pick on Jean-Charles. Both were guilty of too many pass interference penalties. At Georgia, Stokes was guilty of six pass-interference penalties the past two seasons. Of the 16 cornerbacks selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft, that was the second-most. Jean-Charles was guilty of the most pass-interference penalties in 2019 (seven) and overall (10 the last two seasons).

“They feel like they’re about to get beat, so they start to grab and they start to reach and they start to shove,” Mora said before the draft. “You’ve got to drill the moment of truth – ‘here comes the ball’ – until the point where they become very confident in their ability to react the right away.

“I think you coach it out of them in terms of creating the right mind-set. But I think there’s always just a sliver of it in there and at the wrong time it can come back to haunt you. I’ve had that happen before in big games. Really good corners that you saw that flaw and it went away for a while and then it came back. That’s tough to overcome. That’s one of the things that separates the great ones from the good ones at any level and especially at the NFL level.”

Gray said he’d resort to putting boxing gloves on his cornerbacks if they became too grabby.

Five: After the addition of Stokes and Jean-Charles, will Jackson return for a fourth season? Going with the coaching staff’s numbers, Jackson broke up 13 passes as a rookie but has a not-so-grand total of two the past two seasons combined. That a former second-round pick was a healthy scratch for the playoffs is a damning indictment of where he was trending. With a cap number of $1.99 million for 2021, the Packers could save $1.33 million. He’ll get a fresh start with Barry.

Defensive Backs Coach Jerry Gray Says

On the return of King and any lingering “scar tissue” from his performance in the NFC Championship Game:

“When I talk to Kevin, I talk to him about ‘Where do you want to go?’ The good thing is that Kevin is healthy, he’s ready to go this offseason. He’s actually here when he doesn’t have to be here, which is a good sign that he wants to work. We set some goals down and, hopefully, he’s working to that. Just with him being here has given us to a chance to say, ‘OK, he’s serious about what he’s trying to get done.’ As far as scar tissue, I think as defensive backs you kind of grow up and say ‘You’ve got to have the shortest memory in the game because they’re going to come at you. You can lose a play and they’re going to come at you, but that was only one play.’ So, I don’t think he has to carry that around. You know what, it’s going to be 2021, we’re going to play against someone else next year and hopefully he gets the job done.”

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Training Camp schedule

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28 Days: Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon and top running back tandems

27 Days: Record-setting red-zone dominance

26 Days: In Wisconsin sports, misery loves company

25 Days: Matt LaFleur's record-setting start

24 Days: The triumph of turnovers and the one that got away

23 Days: Jaire Alexander

22 Days: Green Bay's record-setting second quarter

21 Days: Aaron Jones' place in NFL history

20 Days: How many kicks has Crosby missed since 2018 at Detroit?

19 Days: Eliminating big-play passes

18 Days: The snubbed star, Za'Darius Smith

17 Days: Davante Adams' dominance

16 Days: Marquez Valdes-Scantling fills need for speed

15 Days: These five players must rebound

14 Days: 53-man roster projection

13 Days: Quarterbacks preview

12 Days: Running backs preview

11 Days: Murphy talks financials ... status of Aaron Rodgers ... COVID-19.

10 Days: Tight ends preview

9 Days: Receivers preview

8 Days: Offensive line preview

7 Days: Defensive line preview

6 Days: Outside linebackers preview

5 Days: Inside linebackers preview