Dougherty: Packers Lacking Young Talent at Cornerback

Greg C.

Jun 1, 2005
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Marquette, Michigan
Here's a good analysis of what has gone wrong with the Packers' efforts to find good young cornerbacks in the past few years. Blackmon is our best hope at this point, and what I liked hearing about him in this article is that he has shown a talent for playing the ball while it's in the air. This is what was conspicuously lacking in Ahmad Carroll. Blackmon sounds like a project, but I would like to see him get off to a good start in his NFL debut today, even if he's just playing special teams.

Packers lacking young talent at cornerback

By Pete Dougherty

The Green Bay Packers have developed a troubling void at a cornerback position they were calling a strength just last summer.

Look at the recent draft picks: Chris Johnson, Ahmad Carroll, Joey Thomas, Mike Hawkins.

Somewhere in that group of players was supposed to be a couple cornerbacks playing key roles for the Packers now and forming the nucleus of that position for a year or two.

Instead, with Carroll's recent release, all four are gone, and only Carroll is in the NFL after he signed as a deep backup with Jacksonville this week.

That leaves General Manager Ted Thompson in the unenviable position of having two aging starting cornerbacks in Al Harris, 31, and Charles Woodson, 30, with no ready replacements behind them. Instead, there's only one remaining drafted prospect of note.

That player is Will Blackmon, a fourth-round draft pick out of Boston College. He missed all of the organized team activities, training camp and the first five weeks of the season because of a broken foot and then shin injury. He probably will make his Packers debut today at Miami.

The importance of Blackmon's development over the next year or two shouln't be overstated, because even if he's a bust, there always are ways to fill positions. But that means spending big money at a premium position in free agency, using high draft picks or making trades, like the Packers did for Harris (a second-round pick).

The point is, after going 0-for-4 on Johnson, Carroll, Thomas and Hawkins, the Packers would be spending even more of their treasure pursuing even more cornerbacks if Blackmon doesn't develop into a starting-caliber player in the next couple years. This, for a team that has a world of other uses for that treasure.

The Packers are in this predicament because of that 0-for-4 in the draft — three picks (Johnson, Carroll and Thomas) by former coach Mike Sherman, and one (Hawkins) by Thompson.

Two of those selections fall into the sleeper-type category where the Packers used late-round picks on players they thought had huge upsides, despite their draft status: Johnson, a seventh-rounder in 2003, and Hawkins, a fifth-rounder last season.

Chris Johnson: Traded

Johnson was intriguing because he had uncommon speed — he ran the 40-yard dash in just under 4.3 seconds — and played in a zone scheme at Louisville that rarely showcased that speed and his bump-and-cover ability the Packers deploy. But he was a former junior-college player who never was a full-time starter at Louisville.

The Packers' scouting staff developed a special feeling about him, so Sherman traded a future sixth-round draft pick to take Johnson in the seventh round of the 2003 draft. The Packers considered him a legitimate prospect for their nickel corner job as a rookie, despite his seventh-round pedigree.

However, Johnson injured a knee in training camp, and that cartilage damage eventually ended his season. In the 2004 offseason, he developed a stress fracture in his leg, went on the physically-unable-to-perform list at the start of training camp, eventually made it to the regular roster but never was activated for a game.

By the end of training camp in 2005, new GM Thompson had given up on Johnson and traded him to St. Louis for stop-gap linebacker Robert Thomas. So, Johnson never played a down for the Packers.

"I remember hearing from some of their (scouts) that they thought that guy might be better than Carroll," said a scout for an AFC team.

Mike Hawkins: Released

Hawkins was another obscure pick, because he played only one year of college football at Oklahoma before leaving school and living a difficult life that included a homeless stretch and then playing 1½ seasons in the Arena League.

He was an obvious risk as a draft pick, because he had minimal football history, but he had the speed and natural cover ability to perhaps become not only good but special. The Oakland Raiders were the only other team that scouted him as closely as the Packers, and a Raiders source said they would have taken Hawkins in the fifth round if the Packers hadn't.

However, it turned out Hawkins wasn't close to being tough enough to play in the NFL. He missed most of his rookie offseason because of arthroscopic knee surgery and five games that year because of various ailments. He sat out 15 practices and two exhibition games this past training camp because of injuries, and team sources said the length of the list of ailments he amassed in barely more than one year with the team was unprecedented.

Thompson, who drafted Hawkins, cut him at the end of camp, even though he left open two roster spots for a couple days. No one has signed Hawkins.

"I didn't know if he'd ever play football," said the college scouting director for an AFC team. "But, as an athlete, he was really talented. Where they (drafted) him was probably a pretty good spot."

Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas: Released

Carroll and Thomas were much greater disappointments, because they were higher picks. Carroll had his good points. He was a hard worker, had excellent speed and strength, and was an enthusiastic special-teams player. But he was short (5-foot-10) and couldn't track the ball well, especially with his back to the quarterback. That led to his excessive number of penalties.

Carroll was a true junior who never played spring football because he ran track, so Sherman thought he could iron out Carroll's ball-skill deficiencies with the year-round work he'd get in the NFL. But it never happened.

Ultimately, though, Sherman made a major error by using a first-round pick on a cornerback who didn't meet the Packers' minimum height standards for the position.

"He got beat a lot downfield because of size," a college scout said. "You could put college film on of him, and it happened to him every-other game. That was no surprise. Lack of size, everything (in technique and coverage) has to be perfect."

Carroll's high-strung temperament made for a combustible match with his classmate and fellow cornerback Thomas. Their open animosity from the start included ***-for-tat taunting — Carroll needling that he was paid more as a first-round pick, Thomas retorting that he was the better player and Carroll only started that rookie season because of his draft status. That led to Carroll's infamous sucker-punch of Thomas after a meeting that rookie year.

That relationship probably hurt both players, especially Thomas. There were some questions about Thomas coming out of college, because he hadn't faced against elite competition at Montana State, but he had a strong Senior Bowl that turned him into a first-day prospect.

He came off confident in interviews, but he had a brooding and temperamental side dealing with coaches and never played with the bravado he displayed. Sherman cut him in the middle of the 2004 season, and after finishing last season with New Orleans, Thomas is out of football.

"I kind of liked him," said a college scout responsible for that area of the country. "He just had that one (good senior) year. I watched him live against Wyoming his senior year just to make sure. His speed was right on the edge (of marginal), but he was big enough and all that. I thought he'd have a chance to make it. But he was a nut now. He had some problems with the law, and he got on a couple coaches a couple times."

Will Blackmon: The future?

The Johnson, Carroll, Thomas and Hawkins failures leave the Packers with Blackmon as their best shot at finding a future starting cornerback on their roster. He might debut today as a return man, with the outside chance of playing nickel back if Woodson's bruised thigh doesn't hold up and Patrick Dendy moves to a starting spot.

Blackmon was an interesting prospect, because he played his first three seasons at cornerback, then moved to receiver his senior year, though he also played nickel back on defense that season. He caught 53 passes for a 15.0-yard average, both of which led the team, and was named to the all-ACC second-team.

"They needed an explosive guy on offense, and they didn't have an athlete like him over there, a playmaker," Frank Spaziani, Boston College's defensive coordinator said. "It turned out that's exactly what he gave us. He gave us a lot of big stuff, and we had guys on defense that we felt like we could win with at corner."

Most NFL teams projected Blackmon as a cornerback, but he was difficult to pigeonhole for the position. He had solid size (6-0, 198) and tested well as an athlete for the position. He had a 41-inch vertical jump and 11-foot-1 broad jump. But scouts were hoping he'd run the 40-yard dash in the mid-4.4-second area. Instead, he ran 4.54 seconds.

He also played in a zone-oriented scheme at Boston College and didn't help himself with his play at the Senior Bowl, where he took some work at receiver but mostly at cornerback.

One college scouting director rated Blackmon as one of the most athletic players he'd scouted in terms of body control and athletic ability, though he was disappointed by Blackmon's speed and play at cornerback on videotape.

"Everything (testing) was really good," the scout said. "He just really didn't have a position. You were going to have to develop him a little bit, so it's going to take him a little time. You can't take projects on that first day unless they're going to be super."

In Blackmon's short practice time with the Packers (he was injured on the final day of the second spring minicamp and didn't return until this past bye week), his one ability that stood out was playing the ball while it was in the air.

Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy liked enough of what they saw that they cut Hawkins and another veteran who appeared safe, Jason Horton, figuring Blackmon would be back early in the season and a good candidate to play in the nickel or dime. That was a major risk, considering how little they'd seen of Blackmon on the practice field. Plus, Blackmon's recovery took longer than they projected.

Most likely today, he'll be a return man. At Boston College, he averaged 24.5 yards on 110 kickoff returns, and 10.4 yards on 49 punt returns.

If he does work as an extra cornerback, either today or as the season progresses, he'll be at a major disadvantage after missing the crucial learning practices in the OTAs and training camp. But the Packers need him to develop quickly over the next year or so, or they'll be pouring even more big money and more high draft picks into that void that's become their cornerback position.

Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at [email protected]


Mar 27, 2006
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It is just amazing how an incorrect decision can have a domino effect for years to come and the impact will be felt throughout the whole team not just where the mistake was made.


Aug 16, 2005
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yeah dendy had some great coverage!

there was one time i noticed he had a huge cushion and a guy caught a pass, but other than that, he was solid! im in looooooooove!

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