GREEN BAY — After a 254-word filibuster, Joe Barry got to the heart of the matter. He used words such as brutal and devastating.
The Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator had been asked on Tuesday afternoon a relatively straightforward question: Just how much had his defense missed star cornerback Jaire Alexander last season?
In the heat of in-season competition, no one was blaming Barry for obfuscating, talking instead about the importance of having the proverbial next-man-up mentality, playing up his confidence in the team’s other cornerbacks, or downplaying how worried he was about losing a shutdown corner who’d been named second-team All-Pro and voted to the Pro Bowl the previous season.
No coach worth his salt was going to say, “Yeah, we’re in really deep trouble here,” at that point. His focus had to be on the solution, not the problem.
“Anytime that you lose an elite player — and Jaire, he’s in a very select group in this league — it’s unfortunate,” Barry had said in the days after Alexander’s severe right shoulder injury, suffered in a Week 4 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Oct. 3. “I don’t mean to be cliché, but injuries are something you have to deal with. It’s part of our business. (The) cliché, you hear it all the time, (is) ‘next man up.’”
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But Tuesday afternoon — 226 days removed from Alexander suffering that injury, which kept him from playing in the final 13 games of the regular season — it felt as though enough time had passed for Barry to be asked for the truth on just how desperately his unit had missed Alexander.
And, although it took awhile, Barry delivered his honest answer.
“Of course, it was brutal. It was devastating when we lost Ja,” Barry confessed. “But that’s what just makes it so much more exciting when you get a player of his caliber back healthy.”
As the Packers get set for the kickoff of organized team activity practices next week, Alexander isn’t just healthier — he’s wealthier, too, having reached an agreement on a four-year, $84 million extension earlier this week.
The new deal made Alexander, whose arrow had been pointing skyward long before his 2020 accolades and his two interceptions against legendary quarterback Tom Brady in the Packers’ 2020 NFC Championship Game loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback based on the new money in the deal in terms of annual average salary.
It included a $30 million signing bonus while also allowing the Packers to reduce his salary-cap number by about $6 million, a crucial accounting move after Alexander had been set to play on the guaranteed one-year, $13.294 million fifth-year option year of his rookie contract.
Although the Packers had not formally announced the deal as of Tuesday afternoon, it was clear Barry was downright giddy just contemplating what a top-three cornerback rotation of Alexander, 2021 first-round pick Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas could do this season.
“I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but I’m a firm believer that in this league, you can’t have enough corners,” Barry said. “It’s great. Jaire wasn’t going anywhere … (But) I’m just looking forward to getting ‘23’ back on the field healthy and back to himself.”
Alexander did manage to return to the lineup for the season-ending NFC divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 22, but he was a shell of himself.
He only played eight of the 54 defensive snaps that night and was on the field for the crucial third-and-7 that the 49ers converted on a 9-yard Deebo Samuel run on their way to the game-winning field goal as time expired.
“No one really realizes what he did just to get back for us for the playoff game,” Barry said. “He had a major injury, and a lot of guys would have just cashed it in and said, ‘Hey, I’ll see you in May.’ He busted his butt to get back and really was not 100%.
“It’s exciting to have obviously Jaire, to have Eric, (and) to get Rasul back in free agency was great. It’s going to be a lot of fun once we get to OTAs next week.”
Just how much on-field work Alexander will do during OTAs is unclear. What is clear is his return to the lineup, along with the other defensive upgrades and four-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers still running the offense, has Barry expecting greatness.
“The expectations for this team and this franchise, we’re here for one reason,” Barry said. “When you have a quarterback like we have and if we keep doing our job building on defense, our mindset is that we want to win a world title. We want to win a championship. That’s the mindset we have.”
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