GREEN BAY – Leading up to the Packers’ Week 15 matchup with the Chicago Bears, Aaron Rodgers stood at his locker for his usual Wednesday media session with Green Bay reporters.
Amidst questions about the future of the Packers’ organization and the uncertainty surrounding the search for a new head coach, the two-time MVP quarterback was asked about his reason for optimism for a quick turnaround next season.
Rodgers pointed to a solid structure, leadership and an intriguing nucleus of young talent at several key posts, before highlighting what he felt to be a promising array of talent from the 2018 draft class.
At the top that list was Rodgers’ primary adversary on the practice field all throughout the season – rookie first-round pick Jaire Alexander.
“I really like what I see in ‘23,’” Rodgers said, referring to Alexander’s jersey number. “I think he’s going to be a star in this league, but more than that he’s got a really good work ethic and a great attitude, loves football.”
Rodgers wasn’t alone in his thoughts. A month earlier, New England coach Bill Belichick went out of his way to praise Alexander and predict the 21-year-old will soon be “one of the top corners in the game for quite a while here.”
Around that time, two-time Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams posted to his Instagram story a video of Alexander talking to reporters in the locker room with “My Favorite Player” written over a smiling Alexander.
Although his arrival came during a tough stretch for Green Bay, Alexander proved to be a bright spot for the Packers’ locker room during an otherwise difficult season.
Never one to back down from a challenge, the 5-foot-10, 196-pound rookie spent the second half of the season matching up against some of the NFL’s top receivers.
His development quickened due to a combination of factors in the secondary, which included injuries to Kevin King and Bashaud Breeland, and Tramon Williams moving to safety after Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was dealt at the NFL trading deadline.
Gifted with natural and organic confidence, Alexander didn’t just accept the expectations that came with being the 18th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft – he embraced them.
“It was fun,” Alexander said. “I learned a lot of different things as far as being able to stay in there when I’m in press instead of running out – things like that. It was pretty exciting. It got to a point where I’d come in for the installs and I had already figured I’d be on the best guy. That’s how competitive it got.”
The only thing that caught Alexander by surprise was the speed of the game. Unlike most rookies, however, Alexander actually thought it would be faster than it was from his perspective.
Yes, squaring off with the likes of Julio Jones and Adam Thielen, and covering Adams in practice, are no easy task, but Alexander felt neither overwhelmed nor overmatched in those encounters. Each week, he felt more and more like he belonged.
In starting 11 of 13 games, Alexander finished second on Green Bay’s defense with 66 tackles and a team-high 11 passes defensed, including his first official NFL interception against Buffalo in Week 4.
“I thought people would be much faster. I thought the skill level would be like Julio every week,” Alexander said. “But there’s receivers who aren’t like that. There are running backs that aren’t like Adrian Peterson. It’s a good little mix.”
Despite King, Alexander and Breeland missing a combined 19 games due to injury, Green Bay’s pass defense held together and still managed to jump from 23rd to 12th under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and pass-game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr.
King, a second-round pick from 2017, again showed promise in six starts before a lingering hamstring injury landed the 6-foot-3, 200-pound cornerback on injured reserve Dec. 5. Alexander battled his own groin issues throughout the season, sidelining him for three games.
“I do know Jaire is an outstanding young talent. I do know Kevin King, when healthy, if he can be healthy, can be dominant,” Whitt said. “If those guys are healthy, they’re going to have a hell of a tandem. I do know that.”
Alexander, who turns 22 next month, sees a lot of potential in a young secondary that also includes fellow rookies Josh Jackson and Tony Brown, and 2017 second-round pick Josh Jones.
While Alexander knows every NFL team now has film on him, that reality doesn’t faze him. It only serves as further motivation in 2019 to hone his skills and build on his promising debut.
“That’s definitely going to give me a lot of confidence,” Alexander said. “I did that as a rookie, so going into Year 2, I expect to do the same thing, but a little more domination.”