GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jaire Alexander’s future is so bright, he had to wear shades to his most recent session with reporters. OK, maybe the Green Bay Packers rising-star cornerback was just making a fashion statement.
In fact, it’s probably the latter given that the 2018 first-round pick believes his future is now.
Jaire Alexander's fashion statement pic.twitter.com/30SUndI— Rob Demovsky(@RobDemovsky) June 24, 2020
Never one to lack confidence – as a rookie Alexander picked off Aaron Rodgers in training camp and played it off as no biggie and before last season he said he views himself as a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro – the 2018 first-round pick has largely lived up to the hype even if his interception numbers don’t jump off the page and he hasn’t made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team yet.
“I think through those last couple games, especially in the playoffs, my defense, and my coverage was the best it’s been all year,” Alexander said. “I like that I was able to turn that focus over when the games really mattered and really lock in on my coverage and just proving that I am elite in this league. So I think that was the biggest takeaway, that I can do those things and when I lock in and when I master my craft the sky is the limit.”
When questioned about whether he really thinks he’s among the NFL’s elite cornerbacks, Alexander was taken aback.
“What?” he said quizzically. “Yeah.”
There are some numbers to back it up.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Alexander allowed the seventh-lowest completion percentage among players targeted at least 75 times last season, at 51.9 percent. Of the six players with lower percentages allowed -- Charvarius Ward (44.3 percent), Stephon Gilmore (46.9), Denzel Ward (49.4), Tre’Davious White (50.0), Darius Slay (50.6) and Marshon Lattimore (50.6) – all but one has made the Pro Bowl.
Since Alexander came into the league, only Gilmore has more pass breakups (28) than Alexander (24).
Yet Alexander has just three interceptions in his first two years. He could have doubled his total from last season had he not dropped two interceptions, tied for the most dropped picks in the NFL last season along with several players including fellow Packers cornerback Kevin King, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Certainly, Jaire has established himself as one of the better corners in the National Football League and he’s just getting started in his career,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “He has so much in front of him.”
At times last season, the Packers matched Alexander against a team’s No. 1 receiver but it wasn’t exclusive, and it wasn’t always an effective strategy.
For example, in two games against the Vikings, Stefon Diggs caught two passes – both for touchdowns – for 66 yards on six targets when Alexander was considered the “nearest defender,” according to Next Gen Stats. Amari Cooper caught eight passes for 201 yards on 11 targets when Alexander was considered the “nearest defender,” although Alexander had one of his two interceptions last year on a pass targeted for Cooper. Mike Williams caught two passes for 102 yards on two targets by the same Next Gen measure against Alexander.
“I like a challenge,” Alexander said. “If it’s too easy, it ain’t worth it, you know?”
Alexander and King have suddenly become the leaders of the cornerback room unless the Gutekunst decides to bring back 37-year-old Tramon Williams for another year. At this point, however, Gutekunst has shown no indication that’s in his plans. Not only will the Packers need Alexander to keep progressing and the oft-injured King to stay healthy, they’ll need to find Williams’ replacement as the nickel/slot cornerback.
They’re high on Chandon Sullivan, who played 381 snaps last season. According to Football Outsiders, Sullivan had a 76-percent “coverage success rate,” defined as the “percentage of pass plays a defender prevents a successful offensive play, either through incompletion or interception or a failure to gain 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent of needed yards on second down and 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down.” By comparison, Alexander’s percentage was 61 percent, albeit in a much larger sample size (1,125 snaps).
Josh Jackson, a second-round pick in Alexander’s draft class, is also a candidate but played just 108 snap last season. Last year’s sixth-round pick, Ka’dar Hollman, played just four snaps on defense all season and would have to make a significant jump.
Alexander has the benefit of being in the same system – Mike Pettine’s defense – for a third straight year, but he has a new position coach, Jerry Gray. The veteran assistant replaced Jason Simmons, who left to become the Panthers defensive backs coach.
Gray, who spent the last six years with the Vikings as previously served as defensive coordinator for the Titans and Bills, immediately saw the potential in Alexander.
“When I look at Jai, he reminds me a lot of Samari Rolle when I had Samari in Tennessee,” Gray said. “They weren’t really big guys but they were physical. They got really great cover skills and excellent ability to see. A lot of time guys don’t have that vision to see the quarterback and the receiver at the same time. DeAngelo Hall had that. When you got guys who have that type of skill, that’s a big plus.
“The biggest thing I talk to him about is where do you wanna go? I’m not going to try to put his business out there but I know where I want him to be. We’ve talked to him about that and hopefully whenever we get together he’s done the things that he needs to do and then I can help him. Because like I tell all the young guys, I got the knowledge to get you where you have to go. Now, it’s up to you to want to work to get there.
"I’m fortunate enough to have had guys like Xavier [Rhodes] and Antoine Winfield and Nate Clemens, and Samari and DeAngelo," Gray added. "I could just name about another five guys who have actually made it to the Pro Bowl because they took the knowledge. They went out there and played at a high level, and then they become one of the highest-paid guys in the league. If that’s their goal, I can help you get there. If you want to be the Pro Bowl guy, I can help you get there. If you want to be an All-Pro, I can try to help you get there.”
One thing Gray doesn’t need to help Alexander with is his confidence.
“I feel like this is the most confident I’ve been in my technique and in my game,” he said. “I’m just ready to embark on this Year 3.”