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Tom Oates: Packers hit it right with two rookie cornerbacks

August 28, 2018

GREEN BAY — When the Green Bay Packers came up short at the cornerback position a few years back, they selected cornerbacks with their first two picks in the 2015 draft.

It didn’t work out because the players they took — Damarious Randall in the first round, Quinten Rollins in the second — couldn’t cut it at cornerback in the NFL. Both are now safeties, Randall starting in Cleveland and Rollins fighting for a job in Green Bay.

This year, the Packers once again resorted to saturation drafting at cornerback, a position they just can’t seem to get right. In April, they took Louisville’s Jaire Alexander in the first round and Iowa’s Josh Jackson in the second.

I know it’s awfully early to make lasting judgements after only three exhibition games, but it is becoming more obvious by the day that this time the Packers got it right. Alexander and Jackson have already demonstrated the athletic playmaking skills the Packers defense so desperately needs and have picked up the scheme as quick or quicker than most rookies.

“I think they’re right on target,” coach Mike McCarthy said Monday.

So were the Packers. First-year general manager Brian Gutekunst hit the bull’s-eye with his top two draft picks, which is the most encouraging news to come out of the team’s training camp.

A cornerback corps depleted by injuries and a shortage of starting-caliber talent has undermined the defense the past two seasons, but that’s unlikely to happen this season. Now that the Packers have added Alexander and Jackson to Kevin King, the first pick in the second round of the 2017 draft, and supplemented their three prized young talents with trusty free agent Tramon Williams and holdover Davon House, the cornerback position has a chance to go from a weakness to a strength almost overnight.

Williams and King are the likely starters, with Alexander as the slot corner. But Jackson has made great strides lately and is pressing to be in the mix, too.

“The young guys, young corners, are doing a good job,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s just like anything. It’s comfort level with the communication and seeing things at this level. I feel really good about the progress they’ve made.”

There is ample reason to believe that progress won’t stall out like it did with Randall and Rollins. The reason? Unlike those two, Alexander and Jackson are pure cornerbacks who arrived in Green Bay with an understanding of how to play the position.

Randall and Rollins were rolls of the dice by former general manager Ted Thompson. Randall was a safety at Arizona State, meaning he had to convert both to a new position and to playing in the NFL at the same time. Rollins played four years of basketball at Miami (Ohio) and only one year of football, so he showed up still learning how to play both the position and the sport.

This time, the Packers didn’t make the mistake of trying to pound square pegs into round holes. Alexander and Jackson each played three seasons of cornerback in college and left with one season of eligibility remaining.

Alexander has explosive, 4.38 speed to go with the instincts to anticipate routes and the quickness to close on the ball. He’s not big at 5-foot-10, but he might be a perfect fit to play the slot in coach Mike Pettine’s newly installed defense.

Jackson is two inches taller than Alexander and showed elite ball skills in college, leading the nation with eight interceptions and 27 passes defensed last season. He’s not a jet, but his size and savvy more than make up for any lack of speed. After playing off the ball in a zone-coverage scheme at Iowa, Jackson was slow to adapt to Pettine’s press-man coverage outside, but he’s made great strides since the start of camp.

The common denominator with the two rookies is their playmaking ability. Jackson had pick-sixes in his past two games (one was nullified by an unrelated penalty), making impressive breaks on the ball both times. Alexander had an interception in the third game, showing outstanding catch-up speed and making a leaping over-the-shoulder grab.

“Obviously, their ability to make plays on the ball, that’s something that stood out in the draft process and they’re delivering,” McCarthy said. “I’m excited about the way they’ve come on.”

As important as the takeaways are, it is their play down in and down out that will determine how valuable the rookie cornernacks can be this season. Both have gotten burned and will continue to get burned, but it is their knowledge of the scheme and their consistency that will get them onto the field and allow them to make an impact.

“The things that I look for when you have rookies coming in is just their trend toward being a professional,” Gutekunst said. “I think both Josh and Jaire have been on a steady trend. I think you’d like those players to as quickly as they can get into a comfort zone, because that’s where they’re going to start making plays. They’re going to have their ups and downs — this is the NFL at corner, it’s a tough job — but I think they’re starting to get into a comfort zone where their natural skills are coming out.”

I know what you’re saying: We’ve seen this all before. That’s true, but this time time we can expect a better outcome.

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