GREEN BAY – While the Packers return most of their top 10 defense from a year ago, one key spot came available in Green Bay's primary nickel package when slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan signed with Minnesota in March.
But the Packers aren't necessarily looking for one single player to fill the void.
The re-signing of Rasul Douglas ensured a deep position group remained deep for 2022 and beyond, but also raised questions about who will bump inside among the talented trio of Douglas, All-Pro Jaire Alexander and 2021 first-round pick Eric Stokes.
All three have predominately played outside during their time in Green Bay, with the Packers often preferring to line up their corners at specific spots than having one travel against an opponent's top receiver. That could change next season, though.
When asked during the Packers' offseason program who has the ability to handle the "star" nickel cornerback spot, defensive backs coach/passing game coordinator Jerry Gray maintained all three are capable of playing inside.
"I think all our guys do," Gray said. "Ja played a little bit last year, played it the year before; Rasul Douglas the same way. We've got guys who can play more than one position, and I think that's only going to help you."
The nickel cornerback post has been a key cog in Green Bay's defense since Dom Capers moved Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Woodson into the slot. A physical and athletic cornerback, Woodson won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award after a nine-interception season in 2009.
Three years later, Casey Hayward was a finalist for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after snagging six INTs from the slot, while future All-Pro safety Micah Hyde first broke into the Packers' lineup as an inside corner in the nickel defense in 2013.
The job belonged to Sullivan for the better part of two seasons, with Alexander and Kevin King occasionally sliding inside. In looking for ways to get Alexander, Douglas and Stokes all on the field together, defensive coordinator Joe Barry and Gray like having the option to get creative with how they deploy corners.
Stokes feels likewise. After leading Green Bay's cornerbacks in both playing time (935 snaps) and passes defensed (14) last year, the 6-foot, 194-pound defender sees his position's versatility working to the secondary's advantage.
"Anyone of us can go in there and play that slot, play that nickel," Stokes said. "All of us can take turns doing it and figuring it out. It can be any one of us on any given day."
The 25-year-old Alexander has long been considered a strong candidate to push inside given his ball skills, explosiveness and history of matching up against the game's top receivers.
However, the Packers have mostly played the 5-foot-10, 196-pound cornerback on the perimeter throughout his four NFL seasons. According to Pro Football Focus, 2,325 of Alexander's career 2,906 defensive snaps have come outside (80.0%).
Alexander, who signed an extension in May, has no preference on where he lines up. He just wants to make plays, especially after missing most of last season due a shoulder injury.
"I like to be on the field at all costs," Alexander said. "Being inside, I get to blitz the quarterback and we all know how I do when I blitz the quarterback. He goes down. I like it."
Signed off Arizona's practice squad days after Alexander's injury, Douglas turned into one of the best stories in the NFL last season after leading the Packers with five interceptions (two returned for a touchdown) in just 12 regular-season games.
Like Alexander, Douglas has played almost exclusively outside during his NFL career but has the size (6-2, 209), takeaways and tackling ability to be an intriguing option inside, too.
At the Packers' minicamp earlier this month, the sixth-year veteran got a small taste of playing the "star" position with Alexander and Stokes playing on the perimeter.
"It's just more space, it's more challenging – I like it," said Douglas of playing nickel. "It's just awareness and knowing where the quarterback wants to throw the ball."
Alexander was blown away by everything Stokes and Douglas accomplished last season, crediting both as playing "as good as any All-Pro corners or any Pro Bowl corner that I've seen."
The Packers briefly saw the trio together during the NFC Divisional playoff game in January, though Alexander was only cleared to play eight snaps inside in his first game back from injury.
Regardless of how the pieces fall this summer, the Packers are excited about the potential of a secondary that not only returns its top three cornerbacks but also the safety tandem of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage for the fourth straight year.
"I tell Stokes, he needs to be the best in the league," Alexander said. "I know I'm the best in the league, but what would I be like telling him not to be the best or Rasul not to be the best? That would be selfish.
"I tell him just be the best, and we're both going to be the best and next thing you know, all three of us are going to be the best."