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The 'Kei' to the Packers' process

Unsung heroes have been built into the fabric of Green Bay’s success for years

CB Keisean Nixon
CB Keisean Nixon

GREEN BAY – Every season in Green Bay, there always seems to be a player or two who comes out of nowhere to provide the Packers an in-season lift.

In 2010, Packers Hall of Fame general manager Ted Thompson claimed monstrous defensive tackle Howard Green off waivers from the New York Jets, a subtle move that put the Packers' run defense over the top during the team's Super Bowl XLV run.

Two years later, car-salesman-turned-lead-running-back DuJuan Harris finished the year atop the Packers' depth chart. In 2015, James Jones (and his hoodie) came to the rescue after Green Bay lost Jordy Nelson to a season-ending knee injury to lead the Packers in receiving.

A tradition that started under Thompson has continued under General Manager Brian Gutekunst and Head Coach Matt LaFleur. In the first year of that partnership in 2019, former Jacksonville practice-squad receiver Allen Lazard enjoyed a colossal climb up the Packers' depth chart to become a starter. Last year, Rasul Douglas was signed off Arizona's practice squad and registered a team-high five interception after Jaire Alexander missed the rest of the regular season with a shoulder injury.

Still, of all those success stories, Keisean Nixon's rise this season from special-teams flyer to Green Bay's starting nickel cornerback and primary returner might top the whole list. As fearless as he is feisty, Nixon is second in the NFL in kickoff return average (25.4 yards per return) to go along with 23 tackles, an interception and forced fumble in 14 games (four starts).

Not bad for a former undrafted free agent who signed with Green Bay in March after Las Vegas did not tender him a restricted free agent contract following three seasons with the Raiders.

"It's just about preparation and opportunity," said Nixon this week. "It's hard sometimes in this league to get opps at anything. You've got to think about it. There's only one kick returner on every team, so that's only 32 players in the whole world. Whenever you get an opp, you've got to take advantage of your opp, and I feel like that's what I did."

Nixon didn't start his NFL career in Green Bay but he fits the mold of the overlooked prospects the Packers often look for. A native of Los Angeles, Nixon starred for two seasons at the now-defunct Arizona Western College football team before finishing his college career at South Carolina.

The 5-foot-10, 200-pound defensive back returned kickoffs at every level of football he played but cut his teeth as a flyer and core special-teams player in Las Vegas under Rich Bisaccia. When Bisaccia was hired as the Packers' new special teams coordinator in February, Green Bay wasted no time signing Nixon after he hit free agency in March.

Since he's been here, Nixon said he lobbied to return kickoffs and punts, but it wasn't until October (vs. New York Jets) he began handling kickoffs and until November when he was deployed on punts. He currently ranks second in the NFL with a 25.4-yard average on 28 kickoff returns, which is on pace to be Green Bay's best performance on kickoff returns in a decade.

While Nixon can make the coaches' hearts skip a beat at times, he's been a sparkplug for both Bisaccia's special teams and Joe Barry's defense.

"There's always guys that, I don't want to say sneak up, but are going to get a little bit more opportunity and take advantage of those opportunities," LaFleur said. "There's people that maybe you don't have or don't expect to make that big of an impact that do. We're lucky and fortunate when that happens. Certainly, we love to see that from everybody, just to exceed the expectations or whatever is out there on these guys."

His eight returns of 30 or more yards are the most in the NFL this season. Detroit's Justin Jackson, Minnesota's Kene Nwangwu and Indianapolis' Isaiah Rodgers are in a three-way tie for second with five. With three games left to play, Nixon needs two more returns of 30-plus yards to pass Randall Cobb (nine, 2011) for most by a Packers player since 2000.

Although Nixon fielded six kickoffs during his first two seasons with the Raiders, he'd never returned a punt until that Week 10 matchup with the Cowboys. But he wasn't scared. Although his six punt returns aren't enough to qualify for the leaderboard, Nixon is averaging 15.4 yards per return there, too.

For Nixon, it goes back to possessing a unique blend of fearlessness, confidence and desire. It's earned him a fan in quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has played a major role in getting Nixon to come out of his shell this season – in both the locker room and on the football field.

"So much of this league is fit. It's schematic fit, personality fit with the team," said Rodgers. "What kind of leadership is on that team, how the locker room is, how they embrace guys, how they make 'em feel important, but schematic fit is very important.

"I think Kei has really embraced the attitude that we have here. He was quickly one of the favorites in the locker room and a guy that everybody enjoyed talking to and being around and teasing with and joking with like we do, and he just fit in and he fit in the scheme and fit in the locker room really well."

Nixon said he first started talking regularly with Rodgers in Week 3. Shortly thereafter, the NFL's Most Valuable Player in each of the last two seasons began trying to go in for a hug with the Los Angeles native. It took a few weeks but Rodgers eventually worked his way through Nixon's tough exterior.

Nixon said he now hugs Rodgers every time he sees him.

"I love 12. He actually opened me up a little bit to get more comfortable around here," Nixon said. "I'm a to-myself type of person. I'm a great locker room guy but just in-my-shell kind of thing and I was new here, and 12 always asked me, 'Why you so uptight?' So, he tried to give me a hug and I like pushed him and said, 'Don't touch me no more.' He was like, 'Just bring it in.' Felt good. I needed a hug."

The Packers have needed Nixon just as much. In addition to his contributions on returns – for which Nixon was named a Pro Bowl alternate this week – the fourth-year veteran has been invaluable on defense since Green Bay lost 2021 first-round pick Eric Stokes for the season in Detroit on Nov. 6.

Nixon's 282 defensive snaps played for Green Bay in 14 games this season have already eclipsed his defensive workload from 40 regular-season games over three NFL seasons combined (273). He's not the only new face to contribute to the Packers, either. Rudy Ford, claimed off waivers from Jacksonville in September, has been starting at safety, while Dallin Leavitt, Eric Wilson and Justin Hollins are playing key roles after being waived from other NFL cities earlier this season.

Douglas, who re-signed with the Packers in March, doesn't know what the secret is to the Packers identifying players who complement the talent they already have. He's just happy to be part of it.

"I think it's from up top, the coaches and all of it, they really build it like a family thing," Douglas said. "I just know if you ever got a chance to come here, come here. I used to tell everybody all the time – when I play at Lambeau, I just feel like I have superpowers and I know that's how (Nixon) feels back there."

When asked if he wishes he'd been handling returns earlier, Nixon says neither he nor the Packers could have foreseen everything that's happened over the past month. He's just grateful Green Bay gave him an opportunity and allowed him to make the plays he has this season.

When asked about his mentality and the meaningfulness of this opportunity, Nixon goes back to an old interview Tyrann Mathieu did prior to the NFL Draft in 2013. Whatever position the Packers stick him at, Nixon wants to be the best.

"He was saying like, whenever they give me my opp, I'm going to be ready," Nixon said. "If they want me to be the best gunner in the league for the first three years, that's what I'm doing. I feel like that was my role. I always had that interview with Honey Badger in my head. Whenever it's time, they're going to let you get your shot, and the Packers gave me my shot."

Nixon isn't the only one and he won't be the last.