As Darnell Savage and Eric Stokes near return, Packers must keep rookie DBs in the mix
Rookie defensive backs Carrington Valentine and Anthony Johnson Jr. have shown promise despite their status as seventh-round picks.
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Injuries have ravaged the Green Bay Packers for much of 2023. The team has seen All-Pros on both sides of the ball miss significant time with one issue or another, forcing the coaching staff to turn to young and inexperienced reserves at critical positions. And while multiple position groups can make a compelling argument for being the worst hit, the secondary probably has the strongest case.
At the outset of 2023, no part of the Packers defense looked stronger than the defensive backfield. The group featured arguably Green Bay's best overall player, cornerback Jaire Alexander, as well as a bona fide Pro Bowl running mate in ballhawk Rasul Douglas. Eric Stokes, a first-round pick in 2021, seemed poised to return early in the year from knee and foot injuries the previous year, further bolstering the corner depth. In the backend, safeties Darnell Savage and Rudy Ford rounded out the unit.
The secondary took hits soon thereafter. Alexander landed on the injury report by Week 3, missing three of the Packers' first six games. Ford and Savage missed time as well, combining for one appearance since Week 8. General manager Brian Gutekunst further thinned the group shortly before the trade deadline, sending away Douglas for a third-round pick. And while Stokes did return, he lasted less than a game before pulling his hamstring and landing on injured reserve.
Somehow, the Packers managed to weather the injury storm. They have emerged with victories in three of the last four weeks and suddenly find themselves in the heart of the wild-card chase despite the aforementioned defensive backs combining for 14 games missed over that stretch. That figure doesn't even include Douglas who had already departed Green Bay by that point.
The Packers' resurgence coincided with some fortuitous breaks. In Week 9, the Los Angeles Rams took the field without quarterback Matthew Stafford. Two weeks later, the Los Angeles Chargers figuratively and literally dropped the ball, giving Green Bay multiple extra chances while effectively giving the game away. And this past Thursday, the Detroit Lions committed three turnovers, one of which backup safety Jonathan Owens returned for a touchdown.
That luck won't last forever. The Packers cannot expect to claw back into playoff contention without some sustainable improvements on defense. Fortunately for them, some positive developments have begun to emerge on the personnel front.
Last week, Savage returned to practice, opening a three-week window wherein the Packers can activate him off injured reserve. Though he ultimately didn't move to the active roster prior to the Thanksgiving tilt with the Detroit Lions, Green Bay officially listed him as questionable for the game, a possible sign that the safety nears a full return.
"That's the goal, that's the hope," Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said of Savage rejoining the 53-man roster. "But we were hopeful that he potentially was going to be back last week and he wasn't. So, we'll kind of take it in stride and go through the week and see where he's at."
And another key piece of the secondary could join him. For the first time since landing on IR, Stokes practiced Monday and likewise started the clock on his activation window. Though the third-year corner endured a hellacious sophomore slump in 2022 even before his foot and knee injuries, his presence could provide a badly needed injection of experience, size, and athleticism to a position group already down multiple starters.
"I know he's feeling really confident right now and feeling really good," LaFleur said of Stokes. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have taken him off. It's great to have him out there with the guys. Even throughout all this, he's maintained a great attitude and he's a great teammate."
Still, for as much impact Savage and Stokes potentially offer, their returns create a problem for the Packers. Not only could both exhibit rust after stints on IR, but the team has to balance their contributions with those of the promising rookies who have stepped up in their absence: cornerback Carrington Valentine and safety Anthony Johnson Jr.