With passing becoming more prominent across the NFL and nickel defenses becoming a default rather than sub-package, the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers set out to strengthen their secondaries in the earlier part of the decade.
Since 2012, the Vikings have selected five corners or safeties in the first two rounds of the draft. The Packers have taken eight.
While all five of Minnesota’s high picks remain on the team, the Packers have lost three of their eight over the years, but they still possess a decorated collection of young talent from the last two drafts.
PACKERS SECONDARY SELECTIONS IN ROUNDS 1-2 SINCE 2012
2018: CB Jaire Alexander (Round 1, Pick 13); CB Josh Jackson (Round 2, Pick 45)
2017: CB Kevin King (Round 2, Pick 33); S Josh Jones (Round 3, Pick 61)
2015: CB Damarious Randall (Round 1, Pick 30); CB Quinten Rollins (Round 2, Pick 62)
2014: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Round 1, Pick 21)
2012: S Casey Hayward (Round 2, Pick 62)
Green Bay’s misses in some of their earlier drafts likely played a role in their urgency to acquire new talent the last two years. Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, taken in 2015, are both gone. Randall struggled last season (114th rated corner, per Pro Football Focus) and was traded to Cleveland in the offseason for DeShone Kizer. Rollins also had a poor 2017 season (196th, per PFF) and was waived with an injury settlement earlier this week.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is still with the Packers and has appeared in every game since being drafted with 11 career interceptions, but he graded out as just the 53rd best safety last year and is playing out his fifth-year option. Casey Hayward, drafted in 2012, was a terrific safety but departed in free agency to the Chargers, where he’s thrived the last two seasons.
Green Bay’s defensive future now rests in the hands of a new generation of first- and second-year prospects with high pedigrees.
“They do a lot of different variations in the secondary,” said Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. “Obviously, they’ve got some good young talent. They’ve been drafting corners there for quite a while now, so we’ll just have to see as the year goes on.”
Kevin King, the 2017 selection, played 380 snaps last year and finished 173rd amongst all corners, per PFF. The Packers are hopeful that he’s improved, and he played every snap of last Sunday’s game while battling a nagging shoulder injury. Josh Jones, the safety, played 731 snaps a year ago as the Packers posted the 23rd-ranked passing defense, but he missed the season opener with an ankle injury.
Jaire Alexander out of Louisville and Josh Jackson, who had eight interceptions last year at Iowa, are the latest to join the Packers defensive backs room. Both played between 45-50 snaps in Green Bay’s 24-23 win over Chicago. Alexander allowed three receptions; Jackson allowed four.
“You always say you draft or acquire the young man based on what he did in college,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said on a conference call, “but more importantly is how they’re wired and how they fit in what they’re trying to do. I really, obviously, loved these guys coming out of college, but they both have exceptional ball skills, and that’s something that’s a big preference of mine.”
The Vikings haven’t been burdened with replacing their corners and safeties over the years but have had the luxury of adding depth. Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes became stars with a combined five Pro Bowls, Trae Waynes grew into a bona fide starter, while Mackensie Alexander and rookie Mike Hughes give the Vikings a one-two punch at nickel.
VIKINGS SECONDARY SELECTIONS IN ROUNDS 1-2 SINCE 2012
2018: CB Mike Hughes (Round 1, Pick 30)
2016: CB Mackensie Alexander (Round 2, Pick 54)
2015: CB Trae Waynes (Round 1, Pick 11)
2013: CB Xavier Rhodes: (Round 1, Pick 25)
2012: S Harrison Smith (Round 1, Pick 29)
Minnesota has experience on its side in the secondary, while Green Bay’s 23-and-under cornerback trio will be facing quarterback Kirk Cousins for the first time in the regular season. Cousins says, however, that raw corners are not necessarily going to be easily exploited.
“You think of a rookie corner last year like [Marshon] Lattimore in New Orleans, and while, yes, he was a rookie, played like a veteran and was a very good corner. Many times if you have great movement skills, great ball skills, you have a confidence about you, whether you’re young or old you’re going to be tough to go against.”
Minnesota ability to draft, develop and retain defensive backs has become one of the trademarks of Zimmer’s fierce defense. As the Packers try to get back on top in the NFC North, they’ll have to depend on their own player development.