For the last four seasons, the Green Bay Packers’ defense has been lined up primarily with a true slot cornerback. The position has been known in Green Bay as the “star” since Dom Capers’ days as the defensive coordinator. Since 2018, either Tramon Williams or Chandon Sullivan played more than 70% of the defensive snaps, the vast majority of them as the star.
But now both players are gone. Williams retired, and Sullivan signed with the Minnesota Vikings in free agency. The question now is who will play in the slot.
Recently, the Packers have invested heavily in cornerbacks. In 2018, they took Jaire Alexander in the first round. Last week they signed him to a contract that made him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history in average per year. They used a first-round pick on Eric Stokes last year and gave Rasul Douglas a three-year extension during the offseason.
The Packers have three good (or better) cornerbacks, but they all play primarily outside. It will be a challenge to move one of them, but my initial guess is that there won’t be a singular slot corner as there was in the previous four seasons. Alexander, Stokes, and Douglas should see star snaps, depending on what the matchup dictates.
They could use backups Shemar Jean-Charles and Keisean Nixon there situationally. The Packers could even use players from other positions. Safety Darnell Savage and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell may be used in the slot occasionally during the season.
Theoretically, Douglas is the third cornerback on the depth chart, so it’s intuitive to put him in the slot frequently. Douglas established himself as a solid boundary option last year, though, with Jaire Alexander and Kevin King sidelined because of injuries for long stretches.
If Alexander and Stokes are healthy in 2022, Douglas may be the first option to play in the slot. He understands zone concepts and is a good tackler, important aspects to play inside. Douglas is 6’2”, so he might be used there against big slots, like Chris Godwin and Byron Pringle. The Packers could also use him against teams that deploy tight ends as de facto slot receivers, like the Miami Dolphins use Mike Gesicki.
Scouts and pundits questioned whether the 5’10” Alexander could play outside when the Packers drafted him. He proved himself as an elite cornerback and deservedly received a $21 million annual contract. But his extension gives the coaching staff freedom to use him anywhere without worrying about affecting his market value.
A good example is Jalen Ramsey. He was the highest-paid cornerback last season and played most of the snaps in the slot for the Los Angeles Rams. Alexander shouldn’t be used in the star position that much, but he can travel inside if the opposite top wide receiver plays in the slot, like the Rams use Cooper Kupp.
Stokes had a solid rookie season, something especially difficult for cornerbacks, who tend to experience a hard transition from college. Now the expectation is that he solidifies himself as a CB2 behind Alexander. However, part of his job could be to kick inside to defend more classic slot receivers, like Elijah Moore of the New York Jets or the Buffalo Bills’ Jamison Crowder.
If the Packers have to use a designated slot receiver, it would probably be Shemar Jean-Charles, the player on the current roster who is most similar to Chandon Sullivan. The 2021 fifth-round pick is 5’10”, 184 lbs., and has the physical profile to be used there. The problem is SJC played only 3% of the defensive snaps last season, behind players like Kevin King and even Isaac Yiadom, because the Packers relegated him to special teams.
Speaking of special teams, the Packers brought in Keisean Nixon to play under his former coach Rich Bisaccia. However, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said he could also be used in the slot. So, if one of the three guys is injured or needs some rest, there are two more specific role players to adjust to.
Savage is ideally suited to cover, so it wouldn’t be a problem to see him as a nickel or dime corner in sub packages to cover tight ends. And it will probably happen at some point during the season, especially when the Packers use single-high structures with Adrian Amos covering the deep part of the field.
The problem is that defensive coordinator Joe Barry uses a two-high system as its core, and the Packers don’t have a clear and established third safety on the roster. If the Packers move Savage to the slot, Amos will have to play alongside street free-agency pickup Shawn Davis or seventh-round rookie Tariq Carpenter.
One of the reasons the Packers used a first-round pick on off-ball linebacker Quay Walker is to have the flexibility to move Campbell around the formation. The first-team All-Pro can enter the edge rotation because he has the frame and explosion to pressure. However, Green Bay may also use him in the slot in specific situations.
For example, if the opponent uses heavy personnel with two tight ends, a running back, and a fullback, the Packers can put a base formation on the field. If one of the tight ends aligns in the slot, Campbell has the ability to follow and cover him. It gives the Packers alternatives in a hyper-specific and role-focused era of football.
Essentially, don’t expect the Packers to have a single player as the slot receiver, as they did from 2018 to 2021. Joe Barry will adapt to whoever is the opponent this year and to the situation to try and find the ideal matchups for Green Bay. Their defense has enough talent and different pieces to make it work.