Needing to bolster a defensive secondary that may or may not include Mike McKenzie next season, the Green Bay Packers made University of Arkansas cornerback Ahmad Carroll their first pick of the 2004 NFL Draft.
Carroll was the third cornerback selected overall, behind Virginia Tech's DeAngelo Hall (Atlanta, 8) and South Carolina's Dunta Robinson (Houston, 10), but GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman indicated that the Packers had the Razorback even higher on their draft board.
"He's a young man that we identified as a staff as one of the top two corners in the draft," Sherman said of Carroll, who decided to forgo his senior season and enter the draft early. "I felt like if he went back for his senior year he might be a top-10 player, so we had a very high grade for him."
Standing 5-foot-10 and weighing 193 pounds, Carroll is shorter than the Packers' starting corners from 2003, McKenzie (6-0, 194) and Al Harris (6-1, 185), but he possesses blazing speed.
In addition to his football career, Carroll competed in track at Arkansas, earning All-America honors as a sophomore and junior in the 100 and 200 meters. He's been reported as running the 40-yard dash between 4.26 and 4.34 seconds.
The NFL is threatening to crack down on downfield contact between corners and receivers this season, so speed may prove more vital than size, Sherman said.
"If you had a choice of a 6-foot-1 guy who could run a 4.34, as opposed to a 5-foot-10 guy, you take the taller guy," Sherman said. "But that player wasn't available ... This is my guy and I think he'll do fine.
"He's a very competitive guy. He's going to give up some plays to some bigger guys, but I don't think they're going to beat him deep."
Helping to negate any potential size disadvantage, Carroll's arms are 31 inches long and he has a 41-inch vertical leap.
The Packers plan to employ a lot of bump-and-run coverage in the coming season and feel that Carroll's physical style and recovery speed make him a perfect fit for that style of play.
"The big thing you have to look for in a defensive back like this is, how does he find the football?" Sherman said. "He finds it pretty well. He makes plays downfield locating the ball, has great catch-up speed. At the line of scrimmage if something happens, as it does often for corners, and you're a step behind, he has catch-up speed."
The last time the Packers drafted a cornerback in the first round was in 1999, when they selected Antuan Edwards from Clemson before converting him to safety. The only other first-round pick of a cornerback over the last decade was in 1995, when the Packers used the 32nd overall pick to grab Craig Newsome of Arizona State.
Unlike Newsome, Carroll won't necessarily be asked to start as a rookie, although some of that may depend on the future of McKenzie, who in recent weeks has requested to be traded.
McKenzie's days may be numbered in Green Bay, but Packers coaches and draft personnel suggested Carroll would have been their No. 1 pick regardless.
"We need more speed," defensive coordinator Bob Slowik said. "This was not a knee-jerk reaction or a pick based on what is happening with Mike McKenzie."
Sherman stopped short of saying that Carroll would be the team's starting corner opposite Harris, should McKenzie not return next season. But he's confident the 20-year-old (21 in August) can make an immediate impact on the team's third-down package, as a gunner on punt coverage and possibly as a kickoff return man opposite Najeh Davenport.
"He'll be a factor in some capacity," Sherman said. "I'm going to get the first-round pick on the field some way some how. It will definitely be on special teams and I envision on third-down (package) to start with, so we'll see."
Although the Packers have some immediate needs in the secondary, Carroll is unlikely to make the impact last year's No. 1 draft choice, Nick Barnett, made his rookie season.
The 29th pick overall in 2003, Barnett filled Hardy Nickerson's vacated spot at middle linebacker and became just the fifth Packers rookie over the past decade to start the team's regular-season opener.
Sherman admitted that Carroll will require heavy instruction this offseason to get up to speed because he missed out on valuable experience by sitting out spring football to run track at Arkansas and entered the draft a year early. That said, Sherman personally interviewed Carroll at the scouting combine in Indianapolis this February and sees some similarities between the top picks of 2003 and 2004.
"They both have a tremendous work ethic," Sherman said, comparing Barnett and Carroll. "They both have talent. They both love football.
"Nick Barnett, you open him up, he's green and gold. I mean, he loves the Green Bay Packers. This kid (Carroll), just talking to him on the phone, was just so excited about being a Green Bay Packer."
Packers Scout Alonzo Highsmith On Ahmad Carroll: "I've watched the kid for two, three years at Arkansas. The thing about him, he's a tremendous athlete and tremendous competitor. I think that if you're going to play at the NFL level and be successful, especially coming out as a junior, one of the things that you're going to have to be is a willing student and a willing competitor and that's what this kid is.
"I've been impressed with him for two years. A lot of people say he's raw because of the fact that he didn't attend spring football every year. He was a top competitor in the SEC in track and field and won the indoor 60 meters at Arkansas which is a pretty impressive thing in the Southeastern Conference. So he never really went through spring football. I think that's probably the only downfall of the kid is that he didn't have a whole lot of football (experience). But to his credit he was that good to not participate in spring football and be a good football player on the field. So I truly believe that the upside of this kid is tremendous because of his will."