It’s pretty well accepted that the biggest reason for the Packers falling to the Bucs in the NFC Championship game was a failing at cornerback. While Jaire Alexander was playing shutdown style on one side of the field, both Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan made Tom Brady look better than he was, or is, so late in his career
Pro Football Focus computed that Brady threw for eight completions, 123 yards, two touchdowns and five first downs when targeting King or Sullivan. Even with the Packers lacking competency on the left side of the field, Brady’s cumulative passer rating was only 73.8, while Rodgers registered a 101.6 rating. This was the leak that doomed the Packers’ push for the Lombardi Trophy last season.
Exploring things further, PFF shows King as giving up five catches for 66 yards, including a 15-yard third down TD pass to Mike Evans and that 39-yard gimme TD to Scotty Miller on the final play of the first half. He also was in coverage on a 9-yard toss to Evans to start the final drive, and he was called for pass interference on third down a few plays later, preventing the Green Bay offense from launching a final offensive drive. Here’s all you need to know about Green Bay’s season-ending loss: Brady’s passer rating when targeting King was 140.2.
In limited action, Sullivan surrendered three catches for 57 yards. Each catch converted a third down, and two of them kept the Bucs opening drive alive. Almost all of Brady’s success occurred on the left side or down the middle of the field. He completed 15 passes for 241 yards, three TDs, and one interception when throwing to the left or middle.
Even with King and Sullivan struggling, the Packers never called on veteran Tramon Williams, who was active but did not play in this big game.
After that game, I noted that any viewer could see that King lacked the speed, quickness, and shiftiness to keep within three or four yards of the player he was defending. Yet I’ve never heard any explanation why this was so. Have injuries resulted in permanent diminishment of his skills? Has lack of confidence caused him to play far off receivers? Was it just one bad game on King’s part?
When drafted in 2017, King had superb NFL Combine scores. His percentiles were: 97th in the 20 yard shuttle, 95th in the three-cone drill, 87th in the vertical jump, and 73rd in the 40-yard dash. He was also 97th as to his 6’3” height. These percentages are right up there with how Jaire Alexander performed a year later: 88th, 89th, 37th, and 89th respectively – and Jaire’s height of 5’10 ¼” was only 32nd percentile at the position. In other words, King was at least as athletic as Alexander when each entered the NFL.
Since King was a superb athlete when the Packers drafted him, I’m perplexed as to what happened to those physical abilities. It stunned me that the Packers re-signed him for 2021 – I can only hope that means he was affected by an injury against the Bucs, and that he’s since fully recovered. Going into that game he was listed on the injury report as having a non-specific back problem. I don’t place much stock in King’s health anyway, as the guy has missed a boatload of games in four years due to all kinds of ailments – and he once again has yet to participate in training camp to start this season.
The trouble with the back problem explanation, as several of you have pointed out, according to Pro Football Focus player grades, King has never had better than an average season in four tries – and he’s getting worse. Last season, King was graded at number 99, out of 121.
Chandon Sullivan, on the other hand, has always lacked the athleticism to be a successful pro player. His percentiles at the 2018 Combine included: 14th percentile for the 40-yard dash (4.6 seconds), and 11th percentile for the 20 yard shuttle. This constitutes a very low ceiling for Chandon – and yet the coaches are talking about him manning the “star” position -in Joe Barry’s defense. Savage, yes, Sullivan, no!
Going into this make-or-break season, until King provides evidence that his athletic skills are much the same as they were coming out of college, I suspect we’ll see a repeat performance by the Pack’s top draft pick in 2017.
Enter Eric Stokes
For once, Green Bay actually addressed its most glaring need in this year’s draft, choosing Georgia’s Eric Stokes with the 29th pick. Unless the original Kevin King shows up, I feel that Stokes will be under a world of pressure to perform well – and right away. I believe that Stokes will one day be a pro bowler, but that could take a few years. Outside of quarterback, cornerback might be the hardest pro position for a newcomer to master.
After Stokes, all Green Bay has is Josh Jackson, Ka’dar Hollman, Kabion Ento, Stanford Samuels, and rookie Shemar Jean-Charles. You can see why I’m worried that the leak at left cornerback has not been plugged. If injuries occur, I presently have more faith in Ento and Jean-Charles than in the other subs – but inserting either into the defensive backfield of a team in pursuit of the Super Bowl is a scary proposition. Making matters worse, with Jaire shutting down one side of the field, opponents will be turning their attention to the other starting CB all season long.
The inside linebacker spots have been leaky for years, and things got even worse for Green Bay against the Bucs. The snap counts were: Krys Barnes 37, Christian Kirksey 29, Ty Summers 28, and Kamal Martin 14. By the playoffs, Kirksey looked depleted, and then Barnes went down with an injury, forcing the Packers to bring on Ty Summers, who like Sullivan lacks athleticism. However, the early returns on new acquisition De’Vondre Campbell have been terrific. He’s a veteran who stays healthy and plays aggressively and with physicality. Kamal Martin has moved ahead of Ty Summers on various depth charts. This is a much-improved group.
The loss of David Bakhtiari for last season’s playoffs was some miserable bad luck. Even if Bakhtiari misses several early season games, however, Green Bay now has greater depth and versatility in its O-line group, and the drafting of center Josh Myers should soften the loss of All Pro center Corey Linsley. Any number of guys should be able to capably fill in until the All Pro tackle returns. The O-line will be solid.
So, have the leaks of last season been plugged? In most cases, yes, though I’m cautiously pessimistic about that second starting cornerback spot. Eric Stokes will be under enormous pressure to adapt very quickly to the NFL. I’m confident that over time he’ll have great success, but can he get the job done as a rookie?