The underlying question is this: Can the Packers' defensive backs do a good enough job of stopping receivers to allow the Packers to repeat as NFC North champions and make another run at the Super Bowl?
A quick glance at the Packers schedule tells why this is such an urgent question in Green Bay. Let's see … Minnesota twice … that's two games against Randy Moss who can practically make an hour-long highlight film of just his great plays against the Packers. There are two games against Detroit and their talented young receivers Charles Rogers and number one pick Roy Williams. Marvin Harrison and Indianapolis is also on the schedule as are Terrell Owens of Philadelphia, Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt of the Rams and Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn of Dallas. The bottom line: Green Bay's secondary will need to contain a lot of explosive receivers this year.
Last year, the Packers starting corners were Mike McKenzie and Harris. McKenzie is presently in the midst of an ill-advised holdout and has demanded a trade out of Green Bay. There is a slight chance that he will return and the Packers organization said they would welcome McKenzie back, but the odds are McKenzie will be elsewhere once the 2004 season is under way.
Harris and McKenzie both play "press coverage" which involves bumping a receiver at the line of scrimmage and staying with him as he runs his pattern. The NFL has indicated it will keep a close eye on downfield contact between defenders and receivers this season and call more defensive pass interference penalties. This will further handicap Harris who is more suited to be the team's second corner rather than its first. Harris is not considered a shutdown corner by most scouts due to his lack of speed and height.
The candidates to start opposite Harris are all unproven. That doesn't mean they can't become great players, but there are questions about all of them. The veteran in the mix is fifth-year Purdue product Michael Hawthorne. His height (6-foot-3) and long arms are an asset in press coverage. He had two interceptions last year while starting for the injured McKenzie and played in the team's nickel and dime passing defenses. The jury is still out on whether Hawthorne can be an effective starter.
Rookie first round pick Ahmad Carroll is the next possible starter at corner. Carroll has the most speed of any of the potential starters but his lack of height and experience make him questionable in press coverage. Carroll struggled a bit in the Packers first mini-camp and although his play improved in the June mini-camp, he has a long way to go before being declared ready to start on opening day.
Third round pick Joey Thomas has better size than Carroll but played last year at Division II Montana State and has a very big adjustment to make entering the NFL. Still, he made more plays than Carroll in the two off-season mini-camps.
There also is a pending battle for the starting strong safety position between free agent newcomer Mark Roman and Marques Anderson. Roman has more experience and is a proven starter in the NFL. He doesn't make many big plays, but he is a sure tackler and a smart player.
Tackling seems to be Anderson's biggest problem. He often takes the wrong angle to the ball and misses too many tackles. He is less consistent than Roman but has more potential if he can ever get it all together on the field.
The last time the Packers faced this much turnover in their secondary there were similar concerns. The Packers drafted three defensive backs with their first three picks in the 1999 draft in a direct attempt to contain Randy Moss. The results were favorable. Mike McKenzie became an immediate starter while first round pick Antuan Edwards contributed as a rookie in nickel and dime packages. Second round pick Fred Vinson was traded to Seattle for Ahman Green in one of the best trades the Packers ever made. The Green Bay pass defense improved and McKenzie has remained a starter through the 2003 season.
Question marks in June or July don't spell doom in January. There is no doubt that the Packers have talent in their secondary. The key question is will it come together in time for the Pack to shine in 2004.