GREEN BAY – There are no fewer than a dozen names Jerry Gray can rattle off, if he so chooses, when recalling the Pro Bowlers and All-Pros he's worked with over 20 years spent coaching defensive backs in the NFL.
There was Samari Rolle and Blaine Bishop in Tennessee, and Nate Clements and Antoine Winfield in Buffalo. He had Sean Taylor, DeAngelo Hall and Troy Vincent in Washington, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor in Seattle, and most recently Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith in Minnesota.
And now, entering his 33rd year in the NFL (nine as a player, 23-and-counting as a coach), Gray comes to Green Bay in hopes of developing another Pro Bowler or two out of a young and talented secondary that features entrenched starters Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage.
While Gray is quick to point out the strengths of all four DBs, he acknowledges what the Packers might have in Alexander, specifically. The third-year cornerback already has amassed 120 tackles, 28 passes defensed, three interceptions in 29 games with 27 starts – all before celebrating his 23rd birthday in February.
Since Brian Gutekunst used his first pick as Packers general manager to draft Alexander 18th overall out of Louisville in 2018, the 5-foot-10, 196-pound cornerback has been pitted against elite NFL receivers on an almost weekly basis.
His natural talent and tenacity have Gray excited to work with Alexander, drawing a comparison to Rolle and Hall to illustrate what he feels could be Alexander's long-term upside.
"You got a very young, energetic guy who made a lot of plays last year on a really good defense," Gray said. "When I look at Jai, he reminds me a lot of Samari Rolle when I had Samari in Tennessee. They weren't really big guys but they were physical. They got really great cover skills and excellent ability to see.
"A lot of time guys don't have that vision to see the quarterback and the receiver at the same time. DeAngelo Hall had that. When you got guys who have that type of skill, that's a big plus."
Gray, hired in January by Head Coach Matt LaFleur following a six-season stint with the Vikings, has had steady dialogue with Alexander throughout the virtual offseason program, making it a point to ask his young cornerback, "Where do you wanna go?"
Gray will keep the details of that goal-oriented conversation confidential, but he did shed some light on the message he shared with Alexander and the rest of the Packers' secondary.
"I'm not going to force it on you but I'm going to try to give (it to) you and let you be the best corner in the league," said Gray of his philosophy. "If you want to be the Pro Bowl guy, I can help you get there. If you want to be an All-Pro, I can try to help you get there. But you gotta put your work in."
Work is something Alexander has never shied away from. In an interview with packers.com in December, he went into great detail about what drives him on Sundays – his parents, Earl and Tawanda, his humble upbringing in Charlotte and the chip he carries on his shoulder after not receiving a single Division I offer in his home state.
Alexander has flashed star potential in his short time in Green Bay. He was named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team in 2018 and tied for fourth among NFL cornerbacks with 17 passes defensed this past season, trailing only New England's Stephon Gilmore, Tampa Bay's Carlton Davis and Tennessee's Logan Ryan.
"I feel like it's crazy because the best is yet to come," said Alexander in December. "Each year, I get better. Each year, more people notice me. That's cool and all, but to be honest, I kind of liked it when people didn't know me like that. I want to grind. I still gotta make more people feel me."
His 4.38 time in the 40-yard dash and ball awareness were obvious on college tape, but what the Packers have seen in Alexander the past two years is a budding playmaker who's come out of his shell and assumed more of a leadership role in the locker room.
Although this was a particularly challenging offseason for players and coaches alike with stay-at-home orders in place due to COVID-19, LaFleur has been encouraged by what he's seen and heard from Alexander in Zoom meetings. Once the Packers get on the field for training camp, LaFleur is excited to see what 2020 has in store for the young cornerback.
"He has such an infectious personality and he really brings a lot of juice to our football team – not only our defense but our football team," LaFleur said. "It's always fun to watch him go out there and compete. I'm really excited not only about him but our entire defensive backfield."