Earlier this week, Packers fans rejoiced after news came out that the team had re-signed star cornerback Jaire Alexander to a massive four-year extension. The payday is well-deserved. Although he missed much of the 2021 season with a shoulder injury, Alexander was one of the best CBs in the NFL in 2020. Alexander has the athleticism, technique, intelligence, and swagger to match up against the league’s best receivers. He can play both inside and outside, giving DC Joe Barry an invaluable chess piece in the secondary. Moreover, Alexander’s signing solidifies a unit that can meet the demands of the modern NFL with incredible adaptability.
A New Evolution of Offense
NFL offenses are changing. Star receivers like Davante Adams and Cooper Kupp are no longer confined to a single spot in their offenses. Now they move all over the field. As offensive minds look to exploit matchups, these players see more and more snaps from previously uncommon alignments. Last year, star receivers lined up in the slot, isolated on the weak side of 3×1 formations, and even in the backfield.
The traditional slot receiver archetype is shifting as well. Once, it was dominated by small, shifty players who could win on option routes and other quick-hitting concepts. Today, more and more offenses are putting large players in the slot who can help with run-blocking and win with physicality. Players like Allen Lazard, Chris Godwin, Tyler Boyd, and Zach Pascal are all over six feet and 200 lbs., and all spend significant time in slot alignments. This helps put defenses in conflict. Do they add size in the slot to counteract these bigger receivers? Do they keep a nickel CB on the field, or do they sub in a larger player?
Enter The Green Bay Secondary: The Cornerbacks
Although he likely would have been on the 2022 team regardless, Alexander’s extension cements the status of the Packers secondary. It keeps an elite, All-Pro level talent in the DB room. Critically, it also preserves Joe Barry’s capability to counteract modern NFL offenses. With Alexander, Eric Stokes, Rasul Douglas, Adrian Amos, and Darnell Savage in the defensive backfield, the Packers DC has access to remarkable flexibility in his calls.
Arguably, the top 3 corners on the Packers roster all possess different body types and skillsets. Alexander, at 5’10” and 196 lbs., seems to be a natural choice to play against the traditional small slot receiver. He has outstanding explosiveness and elite change of direction. However, he has also played outside for most his career, excelling with an aggressive, confident mentality, fantastic athleticism, and physicality at the catch point.
Rasul Douglas is another CB that has primarily played on the boundary. His combination of height (6’2″), weight (209 lbs.), and length (32 3/8″ arms) is ideal for matching up against larger X and Z receivers. Rasul doesn’t have top-end speed; he ran a 4.59 40-yard dash coming out of college. However, his short-area explosiveness, vision, and catch-point competitiveness allow him to excel playing top-down from off-man or zone alignments.
Eric Stokes, unlike Douglas, possesses blazing speed (4.25 40). He has good size at 6’0″ and 194 lbs. Although he was a rookie in 2021, he showed impressive improvement over the course of the year as one of Green Bay’s boundary corners. He had issues at times reading the QB from zone and off-man, and seemed more comfortable close to the LOS.
The Packers’ starting safeties possess a similarly broad range of skillsets. Although free safety Darnell Savage struggled at times in 2021, he has showed that he can play well in a variety of roles. Savage is a smaller safety at 5’11” and 198 lbs., but put up some excellent tape covering tight ends (with the exception of Mark Andrews). His speed (4.36 40) can be lethal in closing off deep concepts when aligned in 1- or 2-high alignments. He has flashed tantalizing playmaking ability, especially when he can drop into the box as a robber against the pass. Some have speculated that Savage’s athleticism could also make him well suited to be a slot defender.
At 6’0″ and 214 lbs., Savage’s counterpart Adrian Amos is the ultimate do-it-all safety. He can play deep, line up in the slot, and contribute in the box. He has excellent length (32 1/4″ arms) and is physical enough to defend tight ends and big slot receivers. With Amos’ combination of intelligence, versatility, and experience, he is well suited to the demands of the Fangio/Staley/Barry system.
Putting Together an Amorphous Unit
So, Green Bay has amassed a remarkably diverse secondary. What will this look like on the football field? As multiple sources covered, GM Brian Gutekunst himself provided a clue. Speaking to reporters at the NFL owner’s meeting in March, he made several telling comments about the CB room. After specifically mentioning the possibility of Rasul Douglas playing in the slot, he stated, “I think, quite frankly, our entire corner group that we have right now probably could play both inside and out for the most part.” Speaking on Alexander, Gutekunst commented that the CB is going to “go where some of the receivers are gonna go, he’s gonna follow some of those guys in different packages.”
In these statements, Gutekunst gave significant clues regarding how the CBs are going to be used. It is clear that Joe Barry wants to embrace the flexibility that his CB room gives him. Barry can use Alexander as a jack-of-all-trades, solving problems in multiple areas of the field. With Alexander’s elite coverage ability, Green Bay can devote resources elsewhere – shading the safeties to the opposite side of the field, for example.
How Green Bay Can Handle Different Matchups
If, as Gutekunst implied, all of Green Bay’s CBs could spend time in the slot, numerous matchup combinations are possible. For an offense that is using a smaller, quick slot receiver, Jaire is likely the best choice in the slot. However, Douglas and Stokes also provide inside options for the Packers defense, depending on the situation. Barry may prefer Stokes’ skillset when facing a receiver with top-end speed, especially if Jaire is occupied elsewhere. Massive linebackers Quay Walker and De’vondre Campbell will play a role in counteracting larger slot receivers. However, if the LBs are otherwise occupied, then Douglas’ size could prove an asset inside. Likewise, Amos and Savage have the size and coverage ability to handle bigger slot threats.
There may be certain situations that should be avoided – getting Stokes or Douglas matched up against a shiftier receiver, for example. However, the secondary’s potential to consistently win one-on-ones is huge. If his DBs can hold up with less help, Joe Barry has the freedom to play more aggressively. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more blitzes, 1-high safety calls, and man-coverage snaps in the upcoming season.
However, even if Barry utilizes more man concepts, much of his defense will likely still be based around 2-high, pattern-matching zone coverages. Luckily, the variety of skillsets in the secondary should provide an advantage in these situations as well. If Barry wants to play aggressively against underneath routes using calls like Cover 2 or Cover 6, Douglas and Alexander can excel in those roles. If the Packers play more Cover 4, where the outside CBs have to cap vertical routes, then Stokes may make more sense as one of the boundary corners. Both Savage and Amos can drop into deep zones, come up into the box, or defend the pass from shallow and intermediate alignments. Even in zone-based coverages, the diverse abilities of the Packers’ defensive backfield should provide invaluable malleability for Joe Barry.
It’s easy to get excited about the Packers defense for the upcoming season. With the additions of Jarran Reed, Devonte Wyatt, Kingsley Enagbare, and Quay Walker, Green Bay could have a dominant front seven. However, the potential of the secondary should be equally exhilarating. The versatility of Green Bay’s starting defensive backs can give Joe Barry incredible problem-solving ability, allowing him to fully unlock the defense’s potential.
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