Packers cornerback and kick returner ready to “cut it loose” in 2023Wes Hodkiewicz
GREEN BAY - Don't call it a breakout. Not yet anyway.
For Keisean Nixon, the first All-Pro season for a kick returner in Packers history was a good start, but the man responsible for some of the most memorable moments of 2022 spent his offseason contemplating the encore.
"I don't really feel like I accomplished much," said Nixon during last week's organized team activities. "I only played nine games at kick returner. Was it the best? Yeah. But that wasn't really my best. I was just getting my feet wet, honestly. That's why this year is going to be really special."
Whatever way you categorize it, Nixon has been a tide-turner for the Packers and their special-teams unit. The 5-foot-10, 200-pound cornerback arrived in Green Bay with fire in his belly after the Las Vegas Raiders didn't tender him a contract as a restricted free agent.
Green Bay soon came calling, extending Nixon a one-year contract to reunite with former Raiders special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia. Brought in as a reserve cornerback with extensive knowledge of Bisaccia's special teams, Nixon's life changed when Green Bay began featuring him as its kickoff returner against Buffalo in Week 8.
What followed was one of the most prolific seasons for a returner in team history. Nixon paced the entire NFL in kickoff return yards (28.8-yard average on 35 attempts) and ran back a 105-yard return for a touchdown in a dominating 41-17 victory over Minnesota in Week 17.
For his efforts, Nixon became the first Packers' kick returner to be named All-Pro since the Associated Press started recognizing the position in its annual awards in 1976. He re-signed with the Packers in March alongside his sons and mom, Dwanique Spiller, whose battle with breast cancer has been a personal source of motivation.
"I think it's great for him. He's got a family," Bisaccia said. "He's got two little ones and we all know about what his mom is battling with and going through cancer. For a kid to come (into the NFL undrafted) as a free agent, it's a testament to hard work, intestinal fortitude and again really his mindset of being your best regardless of circumstance, and when the opportunity was given to him, obviously how he responded."
The more Nixon produced on special teams, the more opportunities the 25-year-old was afforded on defense. Lining up mostly in the slot, Nixon tallied 23 tackles on a career-high 289 defensive snaps in 17 games (four starts). He recorded his first NFL forced fumble at Tampa Bay in Week 3 before getting his first career interception in a 28-19 win over Chicago in Week 13.
His tenacity earned Nixon the respect of both his coaches and peers. After Nixon re-signed in March, Head Coach Matt LaFleur quickly tabbed the fifth-year veteran as the leading candidate to play slot cornerback in the nickel sub-package. LaFleur even floated the possibility of using Nixon on offense, too.
As much as Nixon appreciated the support, the one other aspect that drew him back to Green Bay was General Manager Brian Gutekunst re-signing virtually all the Packers' special-teams mainstays, including Dallin Leavitt, Rudy Ford, Corey Ballentine, Tyler Davis and Eric Wilson, who tied for the team lead with 13 coverage tackles despite not joining the Packers until early October.
"I told Rich when I signed, I wanted our whole punt-return group back and that's what they did," Nixon said. "They love their guys here and they did what they're supposed to do upstairs with Gute. They see what happens at the end of the day how the special teams look now, even on defense. I don't see no changes. I just see us excelling."
This season will be undoubtedly different, beginning with NFL owners recently instituting a rule change that now allows players to call fair catch on kickoffs that don't land in the end zone. When asked about the change, Nixon deadpanned: "I don't know what a fair catch is."
Because Nixon wants more. His new contract ensures he's back in Green Bay for another year, but he wants to make this arrangement a long-term residency. With that in mind, Nixon has high expectations for both himself and the Packers in 2023. While appreciative of his journey, Nixon feels his best has still yet to be seen.
"I probably took the longest route to get here than probably anybody," Nixon said. "Four high schools, junior college, South Carolina, undrafted. I always knew I had it in me to prove who I was. My last organization I played for wasn't allowing me to do that and I got a fresh start when I got here, and they embraced my talent and who I am as a person. It's time to cut me loose and let me free, and that's what they're doing."