INSIDE SCOOP

Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

April 29, 2018 at 10:44 pm.

Packers 2018 draft: Cornering the market the goal

In January, 2015, the Green Bay Packers had an embarrassment of riches at cornerback. Sam Shields and Tramon Williams were high-level starters, while Casey Hayward and Davon House were fast risers.

Within 20 months, all four were gone. Williams and House left in free agency in March, 2015, Hayward bolted in free agency the following year, and Shields suffered his fifth documented concussion and his Green Bay career was over.

The Packers have been looking for capable replacements ever since, but failed miserably. So Green Bay was back at it in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking cornerbacks with its first two picks.

The Packers selected Louisville’s Jaire Alexander in the first round with the 18th overall selection. The Packers then took Iowa’s Josh Jackson in the second round with the No. 45 pick.

This marked the second time since 2015 the Packers went corner-corner to start a draft. And it was the third time in four seasons Green Bay used its first pick on a cornerback.

“It wasn’t our plan,” Packers first-year general manager Brian Gutekunst said of selecting two corners at the top of the draft. “It was just one of those things where we got lucky and were able to take a player that we didn’t expect to be there.”

Gutekunst had a wild first night, trading back from pick No. 14 to No. 27, then back up to No. 18. When Gutekunst was through maneuvering, he selected Alexander with his first-ever first-round pick.

The undersized Alexander (5-foot-10, 195) was sensational as a sophomore, battled through an injury-plagued junior year that limited him to six somewhat mediocre games, then left school a year early. But Alexander, a converted wide receiver, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds and has terrific ball skills.

Alexander’s size may prevent him from ever playing outside, though, and limit him to playing slot corner.

“Very few corners when they play the game when the ball’s in the air can you feel them close space. He’s one,” Packers director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan said. “When you watch him play, you can feel him close space when the ball’s in the air, both playing forward and backward. The kid can run.

“On top of that, he’s quick and he can change directions and do those things. We’re just excited about the skill-set as a whole. We think he has the makeup to be a high-caliber player.”

Alexander played at an extremely high level as a true sophomore in 2016. That season, Alexander had five interceptions, including two of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.

In 2017, though, Alexander suffered a knee sprain in the regular-season opener while returning a blocked field goal. Alexander missed the next four games and the majority of Weeks 6-8. Alexander broke his hand in practice before Week 9, then played the final three games.

Alexander tried gutting it out with a knee brace, then fought through his hand injury late in the year. But he wasn’t the same player he had been in 2016.

“2016 was definitely a better year,” Alexander said. “I was fully healthy the whole season. (2017) took a little turn, but again, I still had a solid year. Like I said, I was getting targeted by not many people that were catching passes. (2016) was definitely my solid year, but ’17 I thought was pretty good as well.”

Jackson led the nation with eight interceptions in 2017 and broke up a remarkable 26 passes. He was named first-team all-Big Ten and first-team All-America.

Jackson had arguably the best ball skills in college football last season, has ideal size (6-foot-1, 192) and will be extremely motivated after believing he’d be a first-round draft choice. The biggest reason he slipped was his mediocre 40-yard dash time (4.54).

“No doubt, I thought I’d go higher,” Jackson said when reached at the NFL Draft in Dallas late Friday night. “But now I’ve got to go out there and prove it … prove I should have been taken higher and that’s something I plan to do.”

The Packers have been looking for capable corners for years to no avail. Green Bay took Damarious Randall in the first round in 2015 and Quinten Rollins in the second round that year. In 2017, the Packers traded out of the first round and used their second-round pick on cornerback Kevin King.

Randall has already been jettisoned to Cleveland, Rollins has been a bust and King has battled shoulder injuries. The result? In 2017, the Packers set franchise records for futility in opponents’ passer rating (102.0) and completion percentage (67.8). Green Bay also ranked 22nd in total defense last year and 26th in scoring defense.

Perhaps Green Bay learned some lessons with those failed picks and will have far better results with Alexander and Jackson.

“I think those are two totally different situations,” Gutekunst said. “The two corners that we picked … we’re really, really high on and their upside. They’re very good college players, they’re very good athletes. So I don’t really want to compare the two. So, rosters evolve and this was a chance for us to kind of really beef up our secondary and we think we did that.”

 

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