Dougherty: Packers living dangerously at increasingly vital defensive spot
GREEN BAY - Seems like all anybody wants to talk about when it comes to the Green Bay Packers is their receiving corps. For good reason.
Receiver was a glaring need going into the offseason, yet general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t even draft one, and his only notable addition was a middling free agent (Devin Funchess) who recently opted out of the 2020 season.
But if I were Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur, the position that would worry me a lot more heading into training camp is cornerback, more specifically, No. 3 cornerback.
LaFleur at least has some options to work around his shortcomings at receiver. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers can be an equalizer. One or both of the returning young tight ends, Jace Sternberger and Robert Tonyan, might become a bigger part of the passing game. And the top of Gutekunst’s draft — running back AJ Dillon in the second round and H-back Josiah Deguara in the third round — was clearly a plan to go all-in with LaFleur’s outside zone run scheme, with the ultimate goal of making his quarterback’s life easier throwing the ball.
But if the Packers look iffy at receiver, they’re looking even more precarious at cornerback for a team with big goals after going 13-3 and advancing to the NFC championship last year. No. 3 cornerbacks are now starters in the NFL — last season Tramon Williams played 73.5 percent of the Packers’ defensive snaps as their primary No. 3. If you want to win in this league, you can’t skimp in coverage.
Yet, the Packers go into 2020 extremely suspect behind Jaire Alexander and Kevin King. Gutekunst didn’t re-sign Williams, which on the surface is understandable because of his age (37). But the GM made no significant additions, which leaves defensive coordinator Mike Pettine with Chandon Sullivan as his No. 3 corner going into camp, followed by former second-round pick Josh Jackson and 2019 sixth-rounder Ka’dar Hollman.
That’s an enormous show of faith in Sullivan, who played only a third (33.9 percent) of the Packers’ defensive snaps last season as their No. 4 corner. Granted, Sullivan was a good find by the team’s pro scouting staff, which signed him as a street free agent in May 2019 after the Philadelphia Eagles had cut him. After being a practice-squad and bottom-roster player for the Eagles as a rookie, Sullivan won a roster spot with the Packers last summer, then proved a reliable alternative when injuries hit last season.
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But projecting him to be essentially a full-time player at a key position is another story. Yes, his 40½-inch vertical jump at the NFL scouting combine two years ago brings to mind Williams (40-inch plus vertical), who like Sullivan entered the league undrafted out of a small school (Sullivan from Georgia State, Williams from Louisiana Tech). But to think Sullivan will become anywhere near as good a player as Williams is a mighty big projection.
“(Sullivan) is a nice little player,” said a pro scout for another NFL team, “but first of all he’s not as good as Williams (was last season). He’s a guy you’d call a roster player, good enough to be on a team for sure, (but) is he a guy I want on the field for 90 percent (of the snaps)? Probably not.
“Now, those guys (with the Packers) know him better than I do, so if they feel good about him, I get that. He was a nice find for them ... But to say he’s going to take that next step, if it were me I’d like to have some security there. If he can’t do it, who’s next? Looking at their depth chart I’m not sure I know the answer to that.”
Sullivan had his moments last season, most notably a crucial leaping interception in a win at Dallas in October. That was his biggest and best play in a season in which he also had six passes defended and a forced fumble. But it wasn’t like he stood out as a player ready to take off, either. There’s good reason to wonder whether he’ll hold up as a full-time cover man in a league where cornerbacks are tested down after down after down.
If Sullivan doesn’t pan out as a starter, or injuries hit Alexander or King, the Packers’ next-best option might be moving safety Darnell Savage to the slot. Gutekunst even mentioned that possibility after the draft in April, and Savage is the best athlete the Packers could put in that inside coverage role. But moving him from safety also would weaken the center fielder position, where either Raven Greene or Will Redmond would probably become the de facto starter.
Jackson is another option at No. 3 cornerback — he could play on the outside with Alexander moving to the slot. But last year Jackson fell behind Sullivan and even for a while Tony Brown to the No. 6 spot on the depth chart, and there remain questions whether he’s fast enough to play cornerback or physical enough to play safety in the NFL. He’s also a zone corner who’s probably miscast in Pettine’s defense, which emphasizes man coverage.
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This will be a make-or-break camp for a player drafted No. 45 overall in ’18. If Jackson doesn’t resurrect his career this fall, he’ll go down as a big and costly miss on Gutekunst’s draft card.
As for Hollman, there’s almost nothing to go on from his rookie season. He’s a height-weight-speed prospect (5-11¾, 196, reported 4.38 40 at Pro Day) who played only four defensive snaps last year and has a long way to go to show he’s more than a special-teams player.
It bears remembering at this point, you can’t have everything in this league. Every team has its soft spots and weak points.
The Packers have a good pass rush, which no doubt will help their cover men. But coverage is growing more important by the year, as the best quarterbacks nullify the rush by getting the ball out fast. It’s never been more true that you can’t have enough coverage guys in this league.
Maybe Gutekunst will be proven right, and Sullivan and Jackson will come through. But the GM is living dangerously. If I were him, I’d have Tramon Williams on speed dial, and that might not be enough.