The Packers have drafted five corners in either the first or second round since 2015, and yet that position might still be the team’s greatest need heading into free agency. That’s what happens when three of the picks turned out to be busts (Damarious Randall, Josh Jackson, and Quinten Rollins), and another (Kevin King) seems unlikely to be re-signed after four injury-plagued seasons that culminated in an awful performance in the NFC title game.
As of today, the Packers’ corners are second-team All-Pro Jaire Alexander, restricted free agent Chandon Sullivan, and a bunch of young players who were either drafted late (Ka’dar Hollman) or signed off the street (Kabion Ento, Parry Nickerson, KeiVarae Russell, and Stanford Samuels). That’s not nearly good enough for any defense, especially a defense whose new coordinator opined the following at his introductory press conference last week:
“You better have good pass rushers and really good DBs,” said Joe Barry. “Specifically that nickel position, that star position. I think it’s vital. It is a little bit different looking at the defense, not to get into a ton of schematics . . . when you move inside where the nickel or star position aligns, you have a whole ‘nother skill set you need to take on.”
The good news is that corner is one of the deepest and most talented positions in free agency. The bad news is that the most attractive players are either on the wrong side of 30 (Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, San Francisco’s Richard Sherman, Indy’s Xavier Rhodes, New England’s Jason McCourty, and the Chargers’ Casey Heyward) or figure to be out of the Packers’ price range (Seattle’s Shaquill Griffin, Cincinnati’s William Jackson, Pittsburgh’s Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton, Washington’s Ronald Darby, the Rams’ Troy Hill, and the Chargers’ Michael Davis).
So unless general manager Brian Gutekunst is willing to open up his wallet for a proven commodity – Sherman, Hilton, and especially Hill would be good fits – he’s going to have to go bargain hunting. Fortunately, there are quite a few intriguing options. Here are five corners, who for a variety of reasons, make the most sense for the Packers:
1) ROSS COCKRELL (Bucs)
There’s a reason the 29-year-old has been with five teams – he’s not quite good enough to be a long-term solution. That said, he’d be a perfect short-term answer for the Packers. The versatile former Duke star could either replace King on the outside until a highly-drafted rookie is ready to play or challenge Sullivan in the slot. Cockrell’s above-average athleticism allows him to run with speedy receivers on deep balls and stay with quick receivers on slants and crosses. So what’s kept him from sticking with any one team for more than a couple of seasons? He’s inconsistent in run support and can be overmatched at times by the physicality of big-bodied receivers in man-to-man coverage. But hey, when you go shopping in the bargain bin, you have to expect a few imperfections.
Cockrell (#43) didn’t see a lot of action in the playoffs, but he made the most of his limited opportunities. Here, on a key 3rd and 9 play from late in the divisional-round game against the Saints, he breaks up a pass to the dangerous Alvin Kamara.
2) BRIAN POOLE (Jets)
The 28-year-old has been one of the better slot corners in the league for the past few seasons, and he’d be a significant upgrade from Sullivan. The former Florida star has above-average speed, and his hips are surprisingly fluid for a player who weighs over 210 pounds. That size allows him to jam smaller receivers at the line and make it difficult for them to get into their routes. The reason a player as good as Poole figures to be affordable – $3.5 million to $5 million a year sounds about right – is his lack of versatility. He pretty much plays only in the slot. In fact, he’s taken less than 100 snaps outside since 2018. This could be a dealbreaker for Barry, who as mentioned earlier, prefers more versatility at the position. For what it’s worth, Poole spent his rookie season with LaFleur in Atlanta.
3) K’WAUN WILLIAMS (49ers)
There’s certainly a lot not to like about this player. For one thing, he’s started only 38 games in his six-year career. He also lacks size (5-9, 186) and turns 30 in July. So what’s he doing on this list? Just watch him play. The former undrafted free agent from Pittsburgh finds a way to get the job done. More comfortable in the slot, Williams possesses fluid hips and an explosive short-area burst. He also supports the run better than many corners who outweigh him by 20 pounds. What gets him in trouble is his below-average speed and height. He struggles at times to recover when beaten off the line, and bigger receivers can outmuscle him for 50-50 balls. Plenty of teams figure to have interest in Williams, including the Jets, who are now coached by his former defensive coordinator.
4) DESMOND KING (Titans)
The 26-year-old is a favorite of the analytics crowd, but he’s always looked better on paper than on the field. Still, he’d be a solid signing for the Packers. The former Iowa star has great ball skills, and he isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty in the run game. His liabilities are his speed (4.55), size (5-10), and propensity to bite on double moves. King is best-suited to play in the slot, but he’s capable of lining up outside or even in the box. He’s also accomplished at returning punts and covering kicks. Those two skills should only increase his appeal to the Packers, who need to do a lot more than just switch coordinators from Shawn Mennenga to Maurice Drayton in order to change their fortunes when it comes to special teams. King figures to be paid more than Cockrell and Williams but less than Poole.
5) SIDNEY JONES (Jaguars)
Starting with a torn Achilles suffered weeks before the 2017 draft, the 24-year-old just hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He’s missed 20 games over the past three seasons due to injuries. Simply put, this guy makes King seem like Cal Ripken Jr. Nevertheless, the former second-round pick played well enough in 2020 to intrigue even the most skeptical of general managers. Jones was a ballhawk after being promoted from the practice squad in late September. He had nine passes defensed and two interceptions in less than 300 snaps. For comparison’s sake, King had six passes defensed and zero interceptions in nearly 800 snaps. Blessed with good size (6-0, 190) and speed (4.47), Jones has the potential to be one of the steals of free agency if he can stay healthy. But that’s a huge if.