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Butler: Rookie Corners Have Great Potential


The first time I met Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas was in February at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

I was there to take a look at all the defensive backs, and I was in the room when Carroll and Thomas had their personal interviews with the Packers.

Thomas certainly made a memorable first impression. Most of the guys at the Combine go to all their interviews in their workout shorts and a Combine T-Shirt. Thomas wore dress slacks and a tie.

You could tell right away that he was confident in his ability. He talked about how he was eager to become a professional football player and how he thought he could come in and compete with the league's top receivers right out of the box.

As a former defensive back, I love to see that kind of mentality in a kid. On the other hand, you have to be careful, because when a team drafts you they're going to want you to live up to your words.

But Thomas was a good interview -- a smart, bright kid. And when the interview was over I remember thinking that whoever got him in the draft would have a gem.

Carroll was just as impressive. Going in, I'd heard from a few people that he was short. At 5-foot-10, he is the shortest cornerback on the roster, but meeting him he was actually taller than I expected.

In his interview he expressed a desire to step in and contribute right away. He also talked about how he wanted to go to a team with a great tradition, and one that wanted its corners to play bump-and-run like he did at Arkansas.

Usually guys are so stressed out by the process that they're kind of robots in interviews, but Carroll managed to let his sense of humor come out. I appreciated seeing that. It helps you learn about their character.

But you could also learn a lot about Carroll from the way he worked out. I know he didn't get a lot of hype going into the draft, but, man, if you could have seen him at the Combine you would know that he was one of the top corners.

He went through drills like a true pro. You could tell that he took it seriously by the energy that he was putting out.

Heading into the draft, I had Carroll as the No. 2 corner available behind DeAngelo Hall. And the main reason Hall had the edge was because of his abilities as a punt returner.

So, when the Packers ended up drafting Carroll and Thomas I was excited. And just last week I got an up-close look at the rookies when I was helping the team at mini-camp.

With Lionel Washington unable to be there, I kind of took the rookies under my wing, giving them rides back and forth to practice and just talking to them about the personal and the professional aspect of being a pro.

These guys have the potential to be the future of the Packers secondary, so I wanted to see them get off to a good start. And I think they did.

The more I watched Thomas in camp, the more I think the Packers got a steal drafting him in the third round. At 6-foot-1, he's a bigger corner but he still has very good speed.

One of the things that impresses me about him is how he makes adjustments once the ball is in the air. Sometimes young corners struggle on deep routes and veteran receivers use that to their advantage in jump-ball situations.

At 6-foot-1, Thomas shouldn't worry about too many guys jumping over him, but for a rookie his technique is pretty good, too, and that's encouraging.

During camp, we switched Thomas back and forth from right corner to left corner and he seemed to play both equally well. He also picked up the defensive schemes pretty quickly, which will be a big factor in him getting on the field.

Already, I'm confident that Thomas can make an impact on special teams, but hopefully he'll work his way into the nickel and dime packages, too.

As for Carroll -- or A.C., as I call him -- he came into mini-camp with just the attitude you want to see from your first-round pick. This is a guy who is willing to learn and work hard to be the best player he can be.

Numerous times during camp he wanted me to stay after practice to work with him on his jams for bump-and-run coverage. At 5-foot-10, he needs to learn how best to apply leverage to make up for any size disadvantages he might face.

The good thing is that Carroll has outstanding speed and he'll get a lot of practice going against taller, bigger receivers by working against guys like Robert Ferguson and Javon Walker.

Ferguson matched up with Carroll a couple times in individual drills last week, and even though there were a few points when Fergy showed the kid who was boss by throwing in some veteran moves, Carroll fared pretty well overall.

Of course you can't get carried away by what guys do in mini-camp. I've given these guys a lot of praise, but it's important to remember that they're just rookies. They've got a long way to go before they're shutting down the best receivers in the league.

Also, we have no idea how they're going to play with the pads on. Will they be physical? Will they tackle? I think they will, but they've still got to prove it.

I will say this though: Coach Kurt Schottenheimer demands that his defensive backs play physical football. He wants those guys to be hitters. He wants them to go for the football and be aggressive.

If those guys play tough, hardnosed football, you'll see them make an impact this year. If not, they won't have a place on the field.

Having said all that, a lot of you are probably wondering if these guys are ready to start if Mike McKenzie doesn't come back next season.

The answer is that it's too soon to tell. I know a lot of people think the Packers drafted two corners because of McKenzie's trade demands, but I don't think that's the case.

The bottom line in this league is that you can't survive without a fast, athletic secondary.

If Carroll or Thomas get thrown into the fire, it will be asking a lot of them. When you make rookie mistakes at defensive end, you probably give up a first down. If you make rookie mistakes at cornerback, you probably give up a touchdown. That's just the nature of the position.

One thing I will say is that if McKenzie doesn't come back, Al Harris is ready to be the No. 1 guy. He was in midseason form at that last mini-camp.

I kept telling Carroll that he should look at the way Harris plays -- how much he wants it, how professional he is and how hard he plays -- and use that as a model for himself. Harris' demeanor and work ethic are just outstanding.

The other guy that could be a difference-maker is Michael Hawthorne. He's the tallest of the cornerbacks at 6-foot-3, and I love how he uses his length to his advantage. If McKenzie isn't with the team next year, Hawthorne could come in and play at a high level.

But I really hope McKenzie comes back. He's a close friend of mine and there's no question that he's one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Besides that, I just miss him being around.

I like Mike a lot, but he's made some personal decisions about his career and he's going to have to live with them. Meanwhile, the Packers have to continue to do what they're doing and prepare as if he's not going to return. They have no other choice.

The funny thing is that after seeing all the ways Bob Slowik is going to make this defense a hard-hitting, aggressive defense, I'm positive that McKenzie would be back in Green Bay this second if he realized what he's missing out on. Because, trust me, the defense the Packers are installing right now is going to be fun to play!

Sure, a lot of the Xs and Os are the same as last season, but the Packers are going to attack offenses this year. It's an entirely different philosophy from 2003, and it's going to make them better.

I'd like to see McKenzie come back because I'd like to see Coach Slowik have all his bullets when the Packers open the season against the Carolina Panthers. But these two rookies do give the Packers some firepower, and I'm excited to watch them develop.

*One of the most beloved players in team history, LeRoy Butler spent his entire 12-year NFL career with the Green Bay Packers, helping them to two Super Bowls and earning NFL All-Decade Honors for the 1990s before retiring in July 2002.

Butler's autobiography, 'The LeRoy Butler Story ... From Wheelchair to the Lambeau Leap,' is available on his website,*

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