2004 draft picks will find it hard to match Nick Barnett's rookie success.
A year ago, the Green Bay Packers used the 29th overall selection of the NFL Draft to acquire their starting middle linebacker for the 2003 season.
Slated this year to make the 25th overall pick, the Packers would love nothing more than to be equally productive with their first-round choice in the 2004 NFL Draft, which begins Saturday at 11 a.m. CT.
But even though the Packers can make a selection at least four places earlier than they did in 2003, GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman isn't so confident another Nick Barnett situation awaits the team this year, which is why the Packers could be using their first pick of the 2004 draft to build more for the future than for today.
"Last year I kind of had an idea that I wanted to address the linebacker position in the first round if I could and I was able to very happily draft Nick Barnett," Sherman said Wednesday, meeting with members of the Wisconsin media in his annual pre-draft press conference. "This year may be a little bit different on which way we go ...
"I don't know how many impact players are going to come in here (as) rookies and start for us on our team at this present time. It's probably the most comfortable I've felt from a talent standpoint since I've been here that we have people in place. And to get a rookie to come in, I'm not saying he can't (make an impact) at some point during the season, but to get one that can impact us next year I would not say is a high probability. But at some point in the season, maybe (a draftee) could become a starter."
Although it's tempting to put first-round draft picks under the microscope during their rookie seasons, the reality is that Barnett's experience in 2003 was unique.
Over the past four years, Barnett and fellow linebacker Na'il Diggs are the only Packers players to start in the regular-season openers of their rookie campaigns. Over the past 11 years, that feat has been accomplished only five times overall.
That Barnett was able to assume the starting job at middle linebacker in Week 1 of his rookie season had as much to do with the team's vacancy at that position as Barnett's talent and speedy acclimation to the defense. Heading into 2004, the Packers have no such glaring holes, as they can potentially return starters at all 22 positions.
So where do the Packers look?
Being careful not to tip the team's draft intentions, Sherman noted Wednesday that he'd like to add a pass-rushing defensive end to compliment Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, while also adding depth in the secondary and along the offensive line, where there's a high potential for injury.
But meeting those needs might not be so easy. Sherman said the greatest area of depth in the upcoming draft is at wide receiver and linebacker; not that the Packers would rule out drafting at either of those positions, or even at running back, which may be the team's area of greatest depth, with three-time Pro Bowler Ahman Green and third-year backs Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher.
"I don't know if you can ever have enough running backs," Sherman said. "That's a position where if you don't have one, if you lose just one (to injury), you're in the hole ...
"You just never know. You don't have a crystal ball of what's going to happen in the (post-draft) mini-camp or the (June) mini-camp. The young man over in Cincinnati right now (cornerback Dennis Weathersby), unfortunately, has had a tragedy. So you just never know how your team is going to fare. So if you have a talented player, I think you should try to take him."
If the Packers don't move up from their current first-round position -- and Sherman thinks it's unlikely the team will be presented a scenario to trade down -- Sherman believes there will be five to six players available at the 25th spot that he and his personnel staff have assigned a first-round grade.
It's at that point that the personnel staff will have to weigh available talent against current needs.
"You really have to react to what's in front of you," Sherman said. "I know the appropriate term that we always use is the 'best available athlete,' and that's true to a certain degree. But ... because of the way the league is structured right now, it's difficult to trade and fix your team if you need fixing, so you want to take the best available athlete that also fits your need.
"I don't think I'd ever want to reach down and grab a need player out of the second round, though, if there's still a first-round talent is in front of me."
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