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Returns in free agency helped raise the floor at CB for Packers

Cornerback remains a need that should be on GM Brian Gutekunst’s radar during the NFL Draft, but how the Packers went about free agency at this position did help raise the floor of this group.

Before free agency, the depth of this unit was a fairly big concern. After Jaire Alexander, Carrington Valentine, and Eric Stokes, the only players on the roster were Zyon Gilbert and Anthony Johnson–two practice squad players from 2023.

However, during free agency, the Packers would re-sign Keisean Nixon, Corey Ballentine and Robert Rochell.

The return of Nixon gives the defense a starting nickel cornerback that they can rely on. Before Nixon was re-signed, the Packers didn’t have an obvious slot cornerback on the roster, with Alexander, Valentine, and Stokes all being boundary cornerbacks throughout their careers, making that a major need that would have to be addressed.

Every NFL GM wants flexibility going into the NFL Draft, to be able to let the board dictate their actions, rather than feeling like they have to take a specific position early on. Had the Packers not re-signed Nixon or at least added a starting-caliber nickel in free agency, drafting a slot cornerback early on would have been a near must.

Last season, in his first full season as a defensive starter, Nixon held opponents to under 10 yards per catch and forced five pass breakups with one interception. Nixon was also a willing run defender and found some success as a blitzer late in the season.

“The nickel position has become more and more important in our league,” Brian Gutekunst said. “Having a guy who can do multiple things, not only cover but be an instinctual guy that can take the ball and also play against the run just because of how much those guys are involved. That position in particular has become more and more valuable…Keisean really fit us, not only as a player but in the locker room as well.”

Ballentine, meanwhile, provides some needed experienced depth. Due to injuries, Ballentine was called upon often last season, playing 534 snaps. He was very capable of helping out against the run and able to challenge and limit pass-catchers.

Very quickly, and that’s the purpose of free agency, the Packers’ cornerback room is in much better overall shape with Nixon and Ballentine back in the mix.

However, that also doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t address the position in the draft either. There are still some unknowns around what is one of the more important positions in the game.

Stokes missed most of the 2023 season and before his injury in 2022, he was having a down year. I’m not sure anyone truly knows what to expect from him when he’s back on the field. The hope is that Valentine takes that Year 2 leap, but that is never a given either.

Although Nixon is back manning the slot, that is an upgradeable position for the Packers, and the draft will present them with options to do so. Michigan’s Mike Sainristil, Florida State’s Jarrian Jones, and even Iowa’s Cooper DeJean could be moved inside.

Long-term depth should always be a point of emphasis for teams in the draft, and looking beyond 2024, there are, again, some question marks around that for the Packers. Ballentine is only signed to a one-year deal, while this is the final year of Stokes’ rookie deal.

The good news for the Packers is that this is a very good cornerback class. In Daniel Jeremiah’s most recent top 50 prospects big board, seven cornerbacks were listed–the second-most among all position groups. On top of that, with five picks in the top 100 and 11 selections in total, Gutekunst will have the opportunity to address this need.

With how the cornerback room is currently constructed, adding to it isn’t an absolute in the draft by any means, but at a premier position, it would be a prudent move to make.

Story originally appeared on Packers Wire