Silverstein: Slot position looks to be Kevin King's last shot with Packers
GREEN BAY - As big of a surprise as it was to see Green Bay Packers cornerback Kevin King playing in the slot for the first time in his career, there was a logic to it that those in the business understand.
If you’re a team whose priority it is to stop the run, why not put your biggest, best press coverage man close to the ball where he can jar slot receivers at the line of scrimmage, give support to the run defense and be a short blitz away from affecting the quarterback?
King is big (6-3, 200 pounds), has the reach to jam receivers at the line (close to an 80-inch wingspan) and isn’t afraid to throw his body around (although there’s debate in the scouting community as to whether he’s a good tackler).
“To be able to put a big corner in the slot that has some length and does have that short-space quickness, think it just benefits us,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said.
Maybe, but the truth of the matter is that the Packers have no choice.
Barry must try to get something out of King before he sends him to the dime package or to the bench altogether because it’s clear he cannot handle playing outside anymore.
Several scouts who have watched King play this year agreed with that assessment. Barry, and perhaps passing game coordinator Jerry Gray, are clinging to the notion that King, along with Jaire Alexander and rookie Eric Stokes, is among their three best cornerbacks and thus should be on the field.
But as the NFC championship game and the season opener against New Orleans showed, he no longer can defend when lined up on the boundary.
“I think King is a liability, but he’s their best option (in the slot) probably and they want to get Stokes on the field,” one personnel director said. “You don’t want him outside. You can hide him better inside.
“I think they have a chance to have real outside corners and so you put King in the slot.”
The emergence of Stokes, the first-round pick out of Georgia who possesses elite speed, has forced the Packers’ hand. They paid King $5 million to return on a one-year deal with the idea that if they drafted a corner, they would be able to ease him onto the field.
But King’s poor play in the New Orleans game and Stokes’ emergence after a tough training camp caused them to rethink the way they used their corners in the opener, which was to have Alexander and King outside, Chandon Sullivan in the slot and Stokes as an outside corner in the dime.
Stokes needs to be a starter ahead of King.
In Week 2, Stokes didn’t play a quarters coverage correctly, allowing Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson to beat linebacker De’Vondre Campbell for a touchdown in the back of the end zone, but he also broke up two fourth-down passes. Against New Orleans, he used his speed to put a hit on tight end Adam Trautman short of the marker on a third-down crossing route (Trautman dropped the pass just before Stokes hit him).
In 52 snaps, he has not allowed a completion of 20 or more yards, is charged with half responsibility for the Hockenson touchdown and has three pass breakups. King has allowed two completions of 40 or more yards, 1½ touchdowns and has one pass breakup in 112 snaps.
“I think Eric's done a really good job,” Gray said. “And making plays helps his confidence. You’ve got to get the most of the balls thrown at you. So, he's making his plays.
“On the fourth-down play at the end of the game, I thought he was doing a really good job of getting his head around, where most rookies panic when the ball is in the air and you get a DPI (defensive pass interference). He has the understanding that when the balls in the air I got to get my head around and find it so I don't get the flag.”
King, on the other hand, made that rookie mistake on Lions receiver Quintez Cephus’s 46-yard completion on the opening drive. He did make one play that was important as a slot corner, getting a direct hit on quarterback Jared Goff when Barry blitzed him. It’s the kind of thing that probably helps his cause.
But he has to be better in coverage to hold down a spot.
“I don’t think (King) can play inside unless he’s in a big nickel role vs. a tight end,” another personnel executive said. “Even still, I think he’d have issues due to a lack of short-area quickness. His combine 40(-yard dash) boosted his perceived value.
“It’s a good reminder that 40 times don’t translate all the time. Trust the tape.”
Barry said he is not going to stick with one guy in the slot all year because he feels Alexander, Sullivan and safety Darnell Savage can all play there. He would like to spring different players on opponents based on matchups and game plans and make it harder for offenses to draw up a plan isolating specific defenders.
The obvious move would be playing Alexander in the slot.
He’s terrific in man-to-man, has short-area quickness, is a willing and effective tackler and has the speed to get after the quarterback in a hurry.
But there are more than a few people in the NFL who think keeping Alexander outside is the way to go. He has proven he’s one of the best in the NFL playing outside and it’s gotten to the point where quarterbacks don’t test him much anymore.
In two games, the ball has come his way just three times when he was in primary coverage and foolishly two of them were on deep balls where the receiver had no chance. When he is outside, he is essentially taking away a third of the field.
“They probably want Jaire to stay great where he is,” the second personal man said. “But there could be an argument made he’d be even better inside.”
Gray said Barry is still in the process of feeling out his players in his first year as defensive coordinator. Barry was part of a Los Angeles Rams defensive staff last year that turned All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey into an all-purpose defender, using him a considerable amount in the slot but also matching him up with various receivers.
So far, Alexander has played in the slot only the few times Barry used six defensive backs on the field and he has not been used to shadow a receiver. On Sunday night, San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel will be the best slot receiver the Packers have faced this year and it’s possible Barry will want Alexander to follow him around.
The problem is, anytime Deebo goes in motion, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will know what coverage the Packers are in. So, unless you’re playing man-to-man all game, it can be a disadvantage.
If King were still a good defender outside, the move to Alexander inside would be a no-brainer. But with Alexander on the left and Stokes on the right, the Packers have two man-to-man defenders to whom they don’t necessarily have to give deep help, which allows Barry more options in covering the middle of the field and covering tight ends.
Gray said Alexander could easily play the slot and wasn’t joking when he said it’s possible his star corner could get impatient never getting thrown at playing outside.
“I think ‘Ja’ can pretty much do just about everything right now,” Gray said. “It’s our job to put him in a position to where he gets a chance to get into the action.
“I thought about that (him being outside), now you get kind of bored. So, I'm always telling him, ‘Hey, look, you can’t get bored because somebody is going to try you.’”
The decision to have Alexander stay put makes sense, but also highlights how precarious the secondary is when King isn’t playing well. Sullivan can play outside in a pinch, but basically keeping Alexander and Stokes outside remains the best option.
As for King, the slot may be his final shot with the Packers.