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DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD A CASE OF MIX AND MATCH

By Jerry Gilbert

Much like the defensive line, the 2005 edition of the Green Bay Packer defensive backfield is filled with players who present a wide variety of background, skill sets and dramas. The best of the group, Al Harris, who entered the league as a small school 6th round draft choice, was generally viewed as a career back-up while in Philadelphia. Last season, he battled against the best receivers in the league and played at a pro bowl level. Arguably the worst of the bunch, based on last season, was cornerback Ahmad Carroll, a large school first round draft choice. Carroll is a tremendous athlete, as he showed with his fumble recovery for a touchdown last seasonthe problem is that he was probably missing his assignment on that play as was the case throughout much of the year. "Bust" is too strong a term after one season, but Carroll must start over this year and learn how to be an NFL cornerback. The unemployment lines across the country are filled with high draft choice corners who never succeeded in the pros.

Other players of the "Harris" type, that is lower round draft choices and free agents include safety candidates Arturo Freeman, Earl Little and Todd Franz. Freeman's career to date mirrors that of Harris. He was a valued reserve and occasional starter, who appeared to step up his play at the end of last season when then Miami interim head coach Jim Bates handed him a starting position. Freeman appears to be only an average NFL athlete, but at least in August and September, his experience in the Bates system may be the difference that makes him a starter. If, like Harris, Freeman continues to improve, he could become a second fixture in the backfield.

Earl Little has been a starter in the league, but his career is coming to an end, and he is learning the Jim Bates defense along with the other players. The best that can be hoped is that he will provide a veteran presence for a year or so to "cover" for the mistakes of more talented younger players. On the other hand, some "wily vets" step forward and play very well. The other new veteran safety, Todd Franz, was a good signing because he has had a solid career on special teams, and special teams must get better this season. However he is a long shot to make the squad because of the rookie draft choices.

The great athletes coming out of college types are also present in significant numbers. One of the most disappointing is cornerback Chris Johnson who used his unusual speed to earn a roster spot, two years ago. The disappointing part is that a succession of injuries has caused him to miss the past two seasons and may have diminished his athleticism. As training camp opens, Johnson is once again dealing with an injury. This year's edition of "Chris Johnson" is another phenomenal athlete, Mike Hawkins who is listed as coming from Oklahoma. Hawkins lasted to later rounds because he played only a few games at Oklahoma and a few more in Arena Football. His talent is great; his track record is lacking. The other big name cornerback candidate is second year player and former third-round draftee, Joey Thomas. Thomas is the current front runner to play opposite Harris. However, he did not show enough in his rookie season to supplant the ineffective Carroll. At best Thomas is a young player with much to learn.

At safety, the young guns are rookie draft choices Nick Collins and Marviel Underwood. Collins is another in the group of superior college athletes who must prove they can adapt to the professional game. What provides hope is that he was a "ball hawk" who produced turnovers thorough out his small college career. Underwood was a standout at San Diego State, a good but not great athlete, and just a rookie. He is a long shot to be a starter this season, but if he learns the system quickly, anything is possible.

Two ordinary athletes who were with the team last season, Mark Roman, a disappointment at starting safety, and Jason Horton, somewhat of a ple asant surprise at corner and dime back, are likely to be on the outside looking in when the final roster is set. Cornerback Patrick Dendy 6-0 194 Rice, who impressed at times in Mini-Camp has a shot at a practice squad position.

Look back at last season, evaluate the old and new players based on what they have done so far, and the prospects for the defensive backfield do not look promising. However, this is the time of year when every team and every player still has a chance. The Packers have assembled a group of players with the potential to be adequate or better, and only four or five of them need to step forward. That remains to be seen, but it may be possible.

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