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Dougherty: Packers await Jaire Alexander's return, but questions abound over where to play him

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GREEN BAY - Late this week a high-ranking scout with another NFL team weighed in on this question:

If you were the Green Bay Packers and could get back only one of three injured players among David Bakhtiari, Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith, which one would you take?

His answer: Alexander.

Now, no one is doubting the value of the other two. All three are blue-chip players at premium positions.

But the scout’s answer and explanation are telling and hard to disagree with, considering the premium placed on pass coverage with quarterbacks getting the ball out faster than ever in the NFL.

“Clearly they’re fine without Bakhtiari,” the scout said. “(Rashan) Gary has taken Smith’s place effectively. Alexander gives them another coverage player and is their best.”

It’s looking like Alexander is on the cusp of returning after missing the last three months because of a shoulder injury he sustained Oct. 3. He’d been practicing before landing on the COVID-19 list Jan. 2, and if he’s not off that list and on the practice field by Friday it’s hard to see the Packers playing him in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Detroit. But it sure sounds likely he’ll be ready to go for the Packers’ first playoff game, in the divisional round in 2½ weeks.

The questions then are, where will the Packers play Alexander, and will they at any point get him back to anything resembling a full-time role?

Based on the skill sets and experience of the Packers’ top three cornerbacks — Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas are the other two — Alexander is the best suited for nickel corner. He’s the smaller, quicker coverage guy most teams prefer in that spot to stick with slot receivers who have the “two-way go.” Inside receivers have a lot of room to both sides of the field when they come off the line, so coverage quickness is at a premium.

But nickel corners also have a lot of responsibility to stop the run. They line up in the middle of the defense, almost as a linebacker. And Alexander is coming off a serious shoulder injury he sustained making a head-on tackle. So his shoulder could weigh in the decision, too.

It was reported as an AC joint issue, but based on how long he’s been out, it very likely includes collateral damage to his shoulder as well. If he plays nickel cornerback, he’ll be doing a lot more tackling in the run game.

If the Packers are ready to make him a starter, are they also willing to put him inside and subject his shoulder to all those hits? Sounds like it might be at least be on the table.

“That may be a possibility also,” said Jerry Gray, the Packers’ defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator on that side of the ball. “I look at it as a good problem to have, when you have a lot of good corners, and you can put those guys on the football field at the same time.”

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Whether it’s a good idea, I have my doubts. Seems risky to expose their best cover man’s shoulder to extra punishment unless the Packers’ medical staff has good reason to think it’s about good as new.

If not Alexander, though, either Stokes or Douglas would have to play the slot when all three are on the field.

Moving Stokes inside seems like a nonstarter to me. It would risk messing with a good thing. He’s a rookie who has played nowhere but outside in the NFL, and he’s playing really well. As defensive coordinator Joe Barry and his predecessor, Mike Pettine, have said, playing outside cornerback and slot cornerback is almost like two different worlds.

I have trouble seeing Barry and head coach Matt LaFleur subjecting a rookie to a position change for the win-or-go-home playoffs when he has done so well on the outside. Moving him would be just asking for a big assignment mistake or two.

But if it’s neither of those two, Douglas would have to be the choice. He has been a godsend since the Packers plucked him off Arizona’s practice squad after Alexander’s injury, and the Packers have to keep him on the field. But he also has played only on the outside and doesn’t have the skill set teams look for in the slot. He’s tall (6-2) and big (209 pounds) for a role usually manned by guys built more Chandon Sullivan (5-11, 189), the Packers’ slot corner most of this season.

Still, it’s up to Barry to find a way to make this work. Coaches talk all the time about getting their best guys on the field no matter what it takes, and it’s obvious who the Packers’ three best corners are.

Barry did try Kevin King in the slot earlier in the season — he almost immediately got hurt — and then used him as their dime slot corner last week against Minnesota. If King can do it at 6-3 and 200, there must be a way to make it work with Douglas, if it comes to that, too. It might mean playing even more zone coverage than Barry already does. But somehow, some way, all three have to be on the field.

Another factor could be how much the Packers want to play Alexander when he’s back. Maybe they’d use him only for a series here or there. They could play him strictly as the dime slot, too, on obvious passing downs where the run really isn’t in play. But it also would mean he’d get only 10 to 15 snaps a game.

The Packers stand to gain a lot with Alexander’s likely return. He’s one of the best cover men in the game.

Fitting the pieces together isn’t such an easy call. But it’s up to Barry and his defensive coaching staff to make it work.

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