If Ron Wolf was the Green Bay Packers’ general manager, would he make a trade for Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman?
Under the circumstances of the 1999 offseason, he might well have. Wolf became a legend in Green Bay for such bold moves. The trade for Brett Favre. The free agent signing of Reggie White. The hiring and then the firing of head coach Ray Rhodes within a calendar year.
No one would put 1999 in the archives as one of the Packers’ most memorable years. The Mike Holmgren era had just ended, and as Rhodes stepped in, the Packers prepared for the NFL Draft coming off perhaps their most gut-wrenching playoff loss ever. Terrell Owens’ 25-yard, game-winning touchdown catch at San Francisco with just 3 seconds remaining became known as “The Catch II.”
With Favre returning for his eighth season in Green Bay, the Packers set forth to re-tool a team in their new coach’s image. Wolf used the NFL Draft to not only address an area of concern but bury it.
On the first day of selections, he used picks in the first, second and third rounds on cornerbacks. Big cornerbacks, too. Clemson’s Antuan Edwards, 6-foot-1, came off the board at No. 25 overall. Then came 5-foot-11 speedster Fred Vinson of Vanderbilt at No. 47 overall. And finally, maybe the boldest pick of the bunch, 6-foot Mike McKenzie of Memphis at No. 87 overall.
It was the first time in the 64-year history of the NFL Draft that a team used its first three picks on defensive backs. The message had been sent. Yes, the Packers were looking to improve their cornerback group. But these selections were more in response to another team’s roster and, in particular, another team’s player.
“We have solved a critical problem”
The shift of power in the NFC Central Division in 1998 took the NFL by storm. Coming off a Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, the Packers’ loss to the 49ers came as a wild card because the rival Minnesota Vikings posted their best-ever regular season at 15-1.
Quarterback Randall Cunningham’s renaissance season was aided by a talented group of skill-position players that included a brash rookie wide receiver.
Randy Moss wanted to rip up the NFL and wasted little time in doing so. In his first season, he garnered Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl honors with 1,313 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. On a rainy October Monday night at Lambeau Field, he stunned the home crowd with five catches for 190 and two touchdowns. A 75-yarder to Moss was called back by a holding penalty, otherwise Cunningham would have thrown for more than 500 yards. The Vikings won, slamming the door on the Packers’ 25-game home winning streak.
Receivers Cris Carter and Jake Reed also had their way with the Packers that night. And later in the season, Moss went for 153 yards and a touchdown in a 28-14 victory over the Packers at the Metrodome.
With 6-foot-4 receiver Herman Moore of the Detroit Lions also in the division and the league in general getting bigger and more athletic at wide receiver, Wolf sensed a new direction.
“I think what we’ve done,” he began, assessing the 1999 draft, “is we have solved a critical problem for our football team. That’s how I viewed what we had to do with the draft – try to resolve that. We said we were going to take secondary players and not put ourselves in a position that we were in the previous season.”
The Packers had veteran cornerbacks Craig Newsome and Tyrone Williams on the roster but they needed more. Adding Edwards, Vinson and McKenzie gave them a legitimate shot to keep up. They almost immediately did.
Cornerback, Cornerback, Cornerback!
That was the sidebar headline in the post-draft issue of Packer Report. The rookie trio would make an impression in more than just newsprint. Though the Packers finished 8-8 in 1999 and still had issues with their pass defense, Edwards, Vinson and McKenzie combined for 12 interceptions and 28 pass breakups. In their first meeting with the Vikings – a 23-20 victory at Lambeau on Sept. 26 – Edwards took back an interception 26 yards for a touchdown and Moss had just two catches for 13 yards.
Oddly, McKenzie, the last of the three cornerback picks, would have the best pro career. He jumped out so much in his first training camp that the Packers named him a starter. Shortly after, they shipped Newsome to San Francisco via a trade.
McKenzie led the team with six interceptions and 18 pass breakups and was named to several all-rookie teams. He signed a contract extension with the Packers in 2002 but only played with them until 2004 before he had a falling out with head coach/GM Mike Sherman and Green Bay in general. He was traded early in the 2004 season to the New Orleans Saints for quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan and a second-round pick. McKenzie finished his career with 131 starts — third-most among cornerbacks drafted in 1999 (Champ Bailey and Antonie Winfield) — and posted 28 interceptions.
Vinson had a much more dubious distinction. He did have two interceptions his rookie season as the nickel back but was traded shortly after. In one of Wolf’s slickest deals, he got running back Ahman Green and a fifth-round pick from Holmgren’s Seahawks for Vinson. Green went on to become the Packers’ all-time leading rusher while Vinson fizzled out due to injuries on and off the field. He was released in Seattle after just one season and eventually wound up finishing his playing career in the Arena Football League in 2004.
That was the same year Edwards would sign with the Miami Dolphins after five seasons in Green Bay. He would start just 18 games with the Packers and play in 53 of a possible 80 games. Injuries would mar his career, too, even after moving to safety in 2002 and earning a starting job there. Edwards would finish out his career with three other teams over the next two seasons. All seven of his career interceptions came with the Packers.
Since 1999, the Packers have twice used their first two picks in the draft on cornerbacks. In 2004, they selected Ahmad Carroll of Arkansas in the first round and Joey Thomas of Montana State in the third round. And in 2015, Damarious Randall of Arizona State was taken in the first round and Quinten Rollins of Miami (Ohio) in the second.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org