Matt LaFleur ‘really confident’ in Packers’ CB depth

By: Paul Bretl 6/19/24

From the outside looking in, the cornerback position for the Green Bay Packers could be one with some question marks coming into the upcoming season. However, internally, that isn’t how the Packers view things. In fact, Matt LaFleur really likes the depth of this unit.

“We’re going to play our best players,” said LaFleur during minicamp, “but like I said I think yesterday, I feel really, really confident with the group that we have and there’s going to be some unforeseen things that happen but luckily we’ve got a lot of depth, in particular at that position.”

This confidence in the cornerback position isn’t new, either. GM Brian Gutekunst’s approach to the draft, not taking a cornerback until the seventh round even when there was the opportunity to do so early on, told us that the Packers were bullish about this group.

The way that the offseason has unfolded has only added to that confidence. Jaire Alexander has parlayed his strong finish to the 2023 season into a highly productive offseason, where he’s been present throughout the offseason programs, providing leadership off the field and competitive fire on it.

“Ja’s been outstanding,” LaFleur said. “Again, he’s been here every day, shows up, great attitude, eager to learn, is out there competing with the guys, talking trash, which I love because I love just amping up that level of competition in a fun way. He’s never demeaning. I think he’s been a great teammate and been a great leader for us.”

One of the bigger positional battles that will take place during training camp will be for the starting cornerback spot opposite of Alexander. In the early going, it has been Eric Stokes taking those starting reps with Carrington Valentine as the secondary option.

How snaps will be divided between those two over the summer is still to be determined, or at least at this time, LaFleur wasn’t going to get into specifics, but the goal is to create competition, and the best player will play.

Valentine was challenged to put on weight this offseason and he rose to the occasion, arriving back to Green Bay with added weight and muscle. Valentine’s approach to the offseason has helped him stand out among the rest, as LaFleur put it, while adding that he’s got a “bright future.”

Stokes is now fully healthy with a plan in place to keep him on the field after visiting a hamstring specialist this offseason at UW-Madison with Christian Watson and he is as good as LaFleur has ever seen him.

“I think he’s as good as I’ve ever seen him,” said LaFleur during OTAs. “Both mentally and on the field. I want to temper the expectations with that, but I really mean that. He’s out there competing each and every day. He looks fully healthy. He’s doing a great job of challenging our wide receivers.

“He’s always in great faith. I think you see that personality is back. That’s tough on players when they’re going through an offseason not having opportunity to really build upon their bodies when you’re just focusing on rehabbing and getting healthy. He’s had a chance to really develop his body. He looks in great shape. I think the play says the same.”

With Keisean Nixon’s size, his willingness to help out in the run game, and his comfortability in man coverage, LaFleur likes his fit in Jeff Hafley’s defense as the nickel cornerback. 

“He’s a big guy for the position; he’s 200 pounds or whatever,” LaFleur said. “His willingness to fit in the run fits, whether it’s an A-gap or B-gap, stick his nose in there and then also his ability to play man coverage.

“Certainly, there’s going to be some elements to our scheme that are going to be different. He’s going to have to learn the new scheme. He’s played in this style of system before with the Raiders when Gus Bradley was there. So, he’s familiar with some of the things that are going to be asked (of) him. But that was a big get for us to get him back, in my opinion.”

As far as depth goes, the Packers would re-sign Corey Ballentine, who lined up on the boundary last season but has been taking snaps in the slot during offseason programs, providing the secondary with a versatile option off the bench if needed. Green Bay also has Kalen King, seventh-round pick, who many considered a steal at that point in the draft.

Last season, the Packers’ defense ranked in the bottom half of the league in yards per pass attempt allowed and recorded the second-fewest interceptions with just seven. An important contributing factor to what hopefully becomes improved play this season will be Hafley’s defense.

The heavier use of press-man coverage suits the skill sets of this Packers’ cornerback room quite well, while Hafley’s vision-based approach for the back end should result in more opportunities to make plays on the football.

A number of Hafley’s former players and now many of his current ones on the Packers have praised him for his ability as a teacher to simplify the game plan, allowing the defenders to react rather than overthinking, and putting them in positions to be successful, where their individual strengths can shine.

“I love Jeff,” said Carrington Valentine. “He pushes us. He tells us the whys, the ins and outs. We’re just not going out there lining up. We’re understanding of why we’re doing stuff and I’m learning a lot.”

Optimism runs rampant through the NFL during this time of the year. It’s a time of hope across the league. However, at the end of the day, potential has to translate to production, or it doesn’t much matter.

With that said, the foundation that is laid during this time of the year can oftentimes provide a jumping-off point for training camp that, hopefully, carries into the regular season. It’s early, but the Packers’ cornerback room appears to be on that track.

“There’s a really good vibe right now, and I think that’s a great starting point,” said Hafley about the cornerback room in May. “We’re just installing our defense, and we have a long way to go, but you can’t ask for anything else, the way these guys have attacked it and how hard they’ve worked, and that’s just one group that it’s fun to watch right now. we’ll see. I think the competition is so important, right? It’s going to bring out the best in those guys and they’re going to get coached really well.”