Cornerback depth may be targeted

GREEN BAY — If there was any intrigue about the start of the Green Bay Packers’ offseason program when it kicked off last week, the camera lens of team photographer Evan Siegle took care of it with a few shutter clicks.

After a season of discontent in 2023, when he missed nine games with back and shoulder injuries and was suspended for another game because of conduct detrimental to the team after appointing himself captain — and calling the coin flip — for the team’s Dec. 24 game against the Carolina Panthers in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, there was reason to wonder whether two-time second-team All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander would show up for Day 1.

But lo and behold, there he was, captured by Siegle’s Canon and posted on the team’s website — walking into the Don Hutson Center with new teammate Xavier McKinney, and again going through stretching exercises on the Hutson Center turf.

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Although a cynic might point to Alexander’s financial motivation to attend (a $700,000 workout bonus), having photographic evidence that Alexander was in attendance provided an encouraging sign that perhaps he’s put his disappointing 2023 behind him.

Of course, Alexander had also posted what seemed like a farewell message on his Instagram account immediately after the team’s playoff loss to San Francisco, so it’s difficult to know for sure.

Certainly, the Packers hope Alexander is once again a happy camper, and both sides said after Alexander’s suspension was over that they felt the relationship between the organization and the player would be better for it.

And to Alexander’s credit, he overcame a midweek ankle injury to start the Packers playoff-opening win at Dallas, delivering a first-quarter interception that set up a touchdown to give the Packers an early 14-0 lead.

“I’m very grateful to be here. (The suspension) doesn’t affect my relationship with anybody. I think if anything, it improved it,” Alexander said upon his return. “It was good for both parties to hear both sides. That’s kind of what we alluded to. We got down to the nitty-gritty.”

Alexander’s happiness isn’t the only question mark at cornerback, however.

It’s difficult to know what to expect from 2021 first-round draft pick Eric Stokes, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in 2022 and missed nearly all of last season when his comeback from the foot injury was derailed by repeated hamstring issues.

“Eric’s played a lot of really good football for us when he’s been healthy,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said earlier this offseason. “He’s worked his tail off through all these injuries that he’s had. I know how frustrated he is because it’s so important to him, but I think he’s got a good plan as we go forward this summer to try to get some of those things righted.

“When he’s out there, we’re a little bit different because of his ability to take speed away.”

The good news is that if Stokes’ injury issues continue, the emergence of rookie seventh-round pick Carrington Valentine and journeyman Corey Ballentine give the Packers options behind Stokes. And the team paid out a three-year, $18 million deal to nickelback Keisean Nixon, a colossal vote of confidence for the two-time first-team All-Pro return man’s role in the defense.

“(The defensive coaches) were really excited about what they saw on tape from his ability to play the nickel position,” LaFleur said during the NFC coaches’ breakfast at the NFL Meetings last month. “I mean, he’s a big guy for the position — he’s 200 pounds — (he has a) willingness to fit in the run fits, stick his nose in there. And then his ability to play man coverage.”

For starters, Packers’ offensive line needs depth charge from 2024 NFL Draft

Depth chart

 No.   Name   Height   Weight   Age   Experience   College 
 23  Jaire Alexander  5-foot-10  196 pounds   27  7 years  Louisville
 21  Eric Stokes  6-0  194  25  4  Georgia
 25  Keisean Nixon  5-10  200  26  6  South Carolina
 37  Carrington Valentine  6-0  189  22  2  Kentucky
 35  Corey Ballentine  5-11  196  28  6  Washburn
 40  Anthony Johnson  6-2  205  24  1  Virginia
 22  Robert Rochell  6-0  193  25  4  Central Arkansas
 30  Zyon Gilbert  6-0  193  25  1  Florida Atlantic
 41  Gemon Green  6-1  183  24  1  Michigan

Best in class

Instead of the 5-foot-11, 189-pound Arnold going to the NFL scouting combine in February, he could have been somewhere else: Playing for the Crimson Tide basketball team that went on to reach the Final Four. 

Coming out of high school in Tallahassee, Florida, Arnold was recruited as a combination football/basketball player by Georgia Tech and Illinois before ultimately choosing to play football at Alabama — although he did subsequently talk to men’s basketball coach Nate Oats about playing for his team, too.

In the end, Arnold made the right choice, though, and he’ll almost surely hear his name called during Thursday night’s first round.

But Oats gave it the ol’ college try.

“Coach Oats — I mean, he’s a real, real chill dude,” Arnold recounted before his final football season. “He’s like, ‘I know how it is with football. Just when you have free time, get over here so we can get you in the plays. Learn this, learn the system.’”

Best of the rest

Quinyon Mitchell, Toledo; Nate Wiggins, Clemson; Cooper DeJean, Iowa; Kool-Aid McKinstry, Alabama; Mike Sainristil, Michigan.

Pick to click

If that last name rings a bell, it should. He’s the younger brother of Packers wide receiver Bo Melton, a seventh-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks two years ago who broke out toward the end of last season, becoming the Packers’ first 100-yard receiver when he had six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown in a Dec. 31 win over the Minnesota Vikings. 

The two brothers remain close, and Bo would love nothing more than to have Max, a projected second- or third-round pick, join him in Green Bay.

“We’ve been going at it ever since we were little,” Max said. “(Initially), we were both wide receivers, so we were doing drills together. When I transitioned to DB, when he’d come home from college and I was still in high school, he’d give me releases, this, that and the third. Iron sharpens iron, and I look forward to doing that in the league also.”

History lesson

Much has been made of the level of first-round investment the Packers have made on defense in recent years — last year’s first-round pick, Iowa defensive end Lukas Van Ness, was the 12th defensive player selected over the Packers’ last 13 first-round picks, with quarterback Jordan Love being the lone offensive player in the bunch — but cornerback has been the position of greatest focus on that side of the ball.

Not only were Alexander (2018) and Stokes (2021) first-rounders, but the Packers also picked cornerback Damarious Randall in the first round in 2015 and used their top pick in the 2017 draft on cornerback Kevin King, who went with the first pick of the second round (No. 33 overall) after then-GM Ted Thompson traded down out of the first round.

The King pick, of course, came after the Packers’ decision to move back cost them a chance at University of Wisconsin edge rusher T.J. Watt, a four-time first-team All-Pro and six time Pro Bowl selection with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Watt also won the 2021 NFL defensive player of the year award.