Despite shutting out the Detroit Lions in the second half of Monday night’s game, the Green Bay Packers’ defense has a long way to go.
A new defensive coordinator and scheme, a soft defensive line, a nonexistent pass rush, and communication issues certainly don’t make for a threatening defense. Some of these issues should work themselves out over the coming weeks, but there is one move the Packers can make immediately to improve their defense.
In the immortal words of King Terenas Menethil, “No king rules forever.”
It seemed inevitable King would play elsewhere this season after an abysmal performance in the NFC Championship game. With King’s injury history and inconsistent play, plus a deep cornerback draft class and cheap free-agent market, it was almost certain King would play for another team.
But the Packers must feel a lot better about King than the fans or the media because they signed him to a one-year, $5 million deal. However, the Packers drafted Stokes in the first round of this year’s draft, and King is only on a one-year deal, so the succession plan is clear. But although King missed most of training camp and has a history of unpolished play, he got the nod at CB2.
Two weeks in, that decision hasn’t paid off, which is hardly shocking. King gave up five completions and 133 yards on six targets this season, earning a 50.4 grade from PFF. Sure, no one looked good against the New Orleans Saints, but King’s struggles continued against the Lions. King was drafted for his athleticism, and it simply isn’t there anymore; he’s constantly beaten or out of position. His tackling is a liability for the defense.
Former cornerback Casey Hayward signed with the Las Vegas Raiders for one-year, $4 million. Hayward has been one of the most reliable defenders for the Raiders on an even cheaper deal than King’s. I can’t say whether there was any contact between Hayward and the Packers, but it’s clear King wasn’t the only option out there.
King is well-liked by his teammates and valued by his coaching staff. In his Tuesday press conference, Matt LaFleur said that while King had some “teachable moments” inside, he did a really good job overall. But if the Packers want to improve their defense, play Stokes outside. Stokes was drafted for this role and impressed in his limited appearances so far.
With King out, Stokes spent training camp being bullied by the Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams Show. Like raw materials being forged into a strong blade, facing the league’s best QB/WR duo strengthened and prepared Stokes for his role. Stokes didn’t play much in the preseason, indicating the coaching staff liked where he was at in his development.
Stokes only played eight defensive snaps against the Saints but had an impressive third-down pass breakup. He got more run against the Lions, playing 44 snaps and moving outside while King went to the slot. Stokes was involved in an early Lions touchdown but was otherwise spectacular. His speed was on full display, allowing him to quickly recover from any errors, and he was always in position to contest. Stokes had two fourth-down PBUs when the defense needed big stops.
On the season, Stokes has given up one catch on five targets for a total of five yards and is PFF’s highest-graded rookie cornerback. He’s more than earned a chance on the outside across from Jaire Alexander.
Stokes will take his lumps as he faces better receivers, and rookie cornerbacks are usually bad. But the only way to learn is to play, and what we’ve seen is better than what King can offer. Going against Rodgers and Adams daily prepared Stokes for the opportunity, and he deserves the chance to build on it.
Putting King in the slot is an easy way to get Stokes involved, as we saw against the Lions. It’s not a perfect solution, as King can still be picked on, but it allows Green Bay to put their two best corners outside at the same time.
King has had his time in the spotlight, and we know who he is as a player. The Packers drafted Stokes to replace King eventually. After two weeks of poor play from King and positive signs from Stokes, it’s clear that time is now.