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Packers weighing all their options at nickel cornerback

GM Brian Gutekunst likes versatility of Green Bay’s secondary

CB Chandon Sullivan
CB Chandon Sullivan

GREEN BAY – With the NFL Draft over, the Packers have a decision to make on how they wish to proceed at one of their most prominent defensive positions.

The Packers are set to return both of their starting cornerbacks ( Jaire Alexander and Kevin King) and safeties ( Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage) in 2020, but nickel cornerback remains unoccupied at the moment.

Tramon Williams, who held down that post for all 18 games (including postseason) last year, remains unsigned. The 37-year-old cornerback led the Packers' defense with 547 snaps in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, while registering 39 tackles and two interceptions.

General Manager Brian Gutekunst has reiterated the team hasn't closed the door on bringing back Williams, but there are several young players on the roster who could be considered for the job.

Second-year cornerback Chandon Sullivan, former second-round pick Josh Jackson and 2019 sixth-rounder Ka'dar Hollman are next on the cornerback depth chart, while Alexander, Savage and safety Will Redmond also could play that role at the line of scrimmage.

Take a look at photos of Packers CB Chandon Sullivan from the 2019 season.

"I certainly like a bunch of the guys we have on our roster right now," said Gutekunst following last weekend's NFL Draft. "I think we have a lot of versatility in our secondary group that can do most of that. Obviously Chandon Sullivan did a really, really nice job for us the times he had to go in there last year.

"Jaire can move in there, Josh Jackson can do some of that stuff, so I think we have some pretty good flexibility of guys that can play in there. And even Darnell Savage, he certainly has the skill set to do that. So I think we have a lot of quality candidates."

The nickel, traditionally referred to as the "star" position, has been essential to Green Bay's defense over the years. Charles Woodson, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde and Williams have all taken successful turns roaming the middle of the field.

Sullivan got a taste of it last year. A feel-good story who was scooped up after being cut by Philadelphia after the 2019 draft, the former undrafted free agent went on to make Green Bay's 53-man roster, garnering praise for his competitiveness and versatility.

Sullivan's rise didn't end there. Along with playing on the core special-teams units, the 5-foot-11, 189-pound cornerback manned the slot in the Packers' dime package. He had 30 tackles with six passes defensed and an interception in 350 defensive snaps.

"I'm really proud of him and how he stepped up in the moments that he did," Gutekunst said of Sullivan at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. "He was put in some pretty tough spots, not only for a young player but also he had to play a lot of different spots for us, whether it was safety, nickel, outside. I think he showed his versatility and I'm excited where he can go."

Take a look at photos of Packers S Will Redmond from the 2019 season.

Jackson has the size, credentials and ball-hawking prowess to take on a bigger role but was mostly confined to special teams in 2019 after being sidelined by a foot injury in training camp.

Jackson played only 103 defensive snaps and finished with 11 tackles in 14 games. The 6-foot, 196-pound cornerback earned high marks for his efforts as a gunner in punt coverage.

Alexander, the Packers' top cornerback since being a first-round pick in the same draft that netted Jackson, certainly has the credentials to play inside but he's often been matched against the opposition's top receiving threat. According to PFF, he's played the slot in only 250 of the 1,883 snaps (13.3%) they've charted.

And then there's Savage, whose athleticism and positional versatility played into the Packers' decision to trade up last year and make him the top defensive back off the board. He started all 14 regular-season games he played, posting 55 tackles, five passes defensed, two interceptions and two forced fumbles to earn a spot on the PFWA's All-Rookie Team.

So whether the Packers dial up Williams or go a different route with someone in-house, they have options. But it will be a critical decision given how frequently Green Bay has deployed five and six defensive backs over the past two seasons.

"Definitely, we have some guys on our roster," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "Chandon Sullivan did a nice job, and Josh Jackson has some experience. If need be, we can always look at putting Jaire in there. So I think we have some options (and) that will play itself out here in the future."