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Countdown to Camp: Second safety spot up for grabs in Packers' secondary

Top of depth chart at cornerback much more clear

S Darnell Savage
S Darnell Savage

"Countdown to Camp" is a daily look at the Packers' roster, position by position, leading up to the start of training camp. The series continues with the defensive backs.

GREEN BAY – The biggest storyline in the Packers' secondary as training camp approaches is who will land the open starting safety job alongside Darnell Savage.

Eight months ago, there was actually no guarantee Savage would still have his spot. The 2019 first-round pick was demoted during the second half of the season but eventually worked his way back into the starting lineup, earning praise from the coaching staff for how he handled the roughest stretch of his career.

Savage (5-11, 198) then spent this past spring working exclusively with the No. 1 defense in OTAs while a rotation of veterans began vying to be his partner. Returnees Rudy Ford and newcomers Jonathan Owens and Tarvarius Moore all took their turns with the first unit, and the tryouts could continue throughout the preseason until someone separates himself.

Ford (6-0, 210) was signed at the end of training camp last year, his sixth in the league after stints with Arizona, Philadelphia and Jacksonville, but didn't take long to make his mark on special teams. By the end of the season's first month he was playing regularly on defense, and he wound up starting six games and intercepting three passes, including two in a big midseason victory over Dallas.

Owens and Moore are both free-agent additions in 2023, with Owens (5-11, 210) having started all 17 games last season for Houston and setting a career high with 125 tackles. That came during his fourth season in the league after climbing the ladder from undrafted by the Cardinals (and missing his rookie season due to a knee injury) to a practice-squad member for the Texans to a defensive starter.

Moore was originally drafted in the third round by the 49ers in 2018 and has been a special-teams regular and part-time starter. He missed all of 2021 due to an Achilles injury but came back last year to resume his role on special teams with San Francisco.

Two other returning safeties could be in the mix for the starting role as well, and the Packers also added two rookies at the position.

Innis Gaines (6-1, 202), undrafted in 2021, spent the bulk of his rookie season on the practice squad and then bounced between there and the active roster last season, starting one game.

Veteran Dallin Leavitt (5-10, 195), who spent four years with the Raiders and special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia after entering the league undrafted in 2018, rejoined Bisaccia in Green Bay at the start of training camp last year and instantly became a leader on special teams.

The Packers used a seventh-round draft pick to bring Anthony Johnson Jr. (6-0, 205) aboard after the Iowa State standout converted from cornerback to safety in his fifth college season and earned second-team All-Big 12 honors.

The following is the seventh installment in a series of photos examining the Packers' roster position by position. This installment examines the defensive backs.

Green Bay also signed Benny Sapp III (5-11, 200) as an undrafted rookie from Northern Iowa, where he intercepted nine passes in three seasons after transferring from Minnesota.

At cornerback, the Packers are much more settled, knowing exactly who their top four are, though they're waiting for the fourth to return from injury.

The top three are veterans Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas and Keisean Nixon, who is being given a chance to nail down the nickel/slot role after playing there part-time last season.

Alexander and Douglas have both played the slot as well, but with the defense's strong finish in 2022 based in part on the two-time, second-team All-Pro Alexander (5-10, 196) shadowing opponents’ top receivers and Douglas (6-2, 209) lining up on the perimeter, 2023 likely will start that way.

That has opened the door for Nixon (5-10, 200), the All-Pro kick returner who is eager to earn a regular defensive role. Coaches laud his aggressive, energetic approach that fits in well with the aforementioned cornerback leaders.

The fourth, coming back from injury, would be Eric Stokes, the 2021 first-round pick whose 2022 season ended in Week 9 at Detroit due to knee and foot injuries. By all accounts, Stokes’ rehab has gone well but the timeline for his full-speed return remains uncertain.

After that, the depth chart and final roster spots are far from sorted out.

Corey Ballentine returns after being acquired by the Packers in-season last year and moving from the practice squad to the active roster in mid-November. A sixth-round pick by the Giants in 2019, Ballentine (5-11, 196) is now with his fourth team and received the bulk of his playing time on special teams in 2022.

Shemar Jean-Charles and Kiondre Thomas are also back. A fifth-round pick in 2021, Jean-Charles (5-10, 184) has played in 20 games over two seasons, mostly on special teams. Thomas (6-0, 185), undrafted in 2021, spent last season on the practice squad after a rookie season on the Chargers' practice squad included a handful of game-day elevations to the active roster.

The three newest additions at cornerback are seventh-round draft pick Carrington Valentine, undrafted rookie William Hooper and CFL transplant Tyrell Ford.

Valentine (6-0, 189) played three seasons at Kentucky, starting 25 straight games among 35 total played, and earned multiple all-academic honors in the SEC. Hooper (5-10, 180) led Northwestern State (La.) with 12 passes defensed last season. Ford (5-11, 188), an Ontario native, was a first-round pick in the CFL draft last year and played 18 games for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, standing out on special teams.

Countdown to Camp series

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