GREEN BAY – Jaire Alexander had everyone from Aaron Rodgers to Bill Belichick singing his praises during one of the most impressive seasons in recent memory for a Packers rookie.
The 2018 first-round pick led the secondary with 66 tackles and 11 passes defensed on his way to becoming the first Packers player to be selected to the PFWA All-Rookie Team since 2014.
That early success is the furthest thing from Alexander’s mind, though. Standing at his locker after the team’s second public practice of organized team activities last Wednesday, the 22-year-old cornerback is already thinking about the encore.
“I just want to have a good year, for real. I see myself in the Pro Bowl. I see myself as an All-Pro,” Alexander said. “Last year was a great starting point for me, but this year is going to be my dog year. I’m putting my stamp on that.”
Alexander did a little bit of everything in Green Bay’s secondary last season, playing inside, outside and trailing a few of the game’s top receivers down the stretch last year.
After watching the film, Alexander still feels there’s plenty of room for growth, especially when it comes to takeaways. He helped contain Rams receiver Brandin Cooks and broke up five passes in a coming-of-age performance last October, but believes he should’ve had at least an interception or two.
Alexander finished his rookie year with one INT, though he had another wiped out against Minnesota in Week 2 by a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty on Clay Matthews at the front end of the play.
The Packers finished tied for 29th with only seven interceptions last year, which was disappointing for a defense that routinely finished inside the top 10 in the category over the past decade.
Alexander sees two major factors playing into a turnaround – a more experienced collection of young cornerbacks and the addition of outside linebackers Za’Darius and Preston Smith, and first-round pick Rashan Gary.
“We didn’t get the ball out enough last year, but this year that’s going to change,” Alexander said. “Our front seven, we have great edge rushers. I’m not even going to say good. Those dudes are coming, so the ball is going to be out a lot faster.”
Helping boost the Packers’ cornerback room is the return of third-year pro Kevin King, who finished last season on injured reserve with a lingering hamstring injury.
Green Bay also has big plans for second-year cornerback Josh Jackson, drafted one round after Alexander. Jackson played in all 16 games, starting 10. The 23-year-old focused his offseason on improving his strength and conditioning.
Right now, Jackson is rotating inside at the nickel spot with veteran Tramon Williams, who has moved back to cornerback after finishing last year at safety.
“I feel a lot more confident, for sure,” Jackson said. “I think that’s the main thing just building those relationships, building that chemistry so I feel a lot more confident and I’m ready to go, ready to go out there and make plays.”
Jason Simmons, the longest-tenured assistant on the Packers’ staff who is in his second year as the defensive backs coach, likes the competition that’s brewing, with second-year cornerback Tony Brown and sixth-round draft pick Ka’Dar Hollman also competing for playing time.
As much as Alexander, King and Jackson were drafted to be the future of the secondary, Simmons expects Williams, Hollman and the rest of the room to push them.
“The one thing that’s my job is to make sure with some of the success that both of (the rookies) had that they don’t get complacent,” Simmons said. “That they know in this league you either get better or get worse. I’ll continue to challenge them. I’ll continue to challenge both of the guys to get better, because there are people behind them that are trying to take their spot.”
One of the first things Matt LaFleur said after being introduced as the Packers’ new head coach in January is he expects Green Bay to be a ball-hawking defense. As players settle into Mike Pettine’s scheme, LaFleur is confident the defense will get there.
The Packers were on the practice field Wednesday afternoon for Phase 3 of the offseason program.
With Alexander leading the way, LaFleur is also excited to watch Green Bay’s developing cornerbacks mesh with the remade pass rush. His hope is it results in more takeaways in 2019.
“Our defense, one of the areas that we really emphasized is attacking the football,” LaFleur said. “And one thing I know that we need to do a better job of is getting the ball out. Those guys, you see that they’re constantly poking at the football (in practice).
“If we can generate a bunch of turnovers on defense, that’s going to increase our odds of winning the football game — because there’s not a better indicator of wins and losses than the turnover battle.”