Few teams better than Packers at finding late-round, undrafted gems
The Packers' recent signing of baggage-laden tight end Colt Lyerla struck some as an out-of-character move for Green Bay, which doesn't routinely take chances on players who enter the NFL with the bevy of red flags featured by the talented but troubled former Oregon Duck. But viewed from another perspective, the Packers' risky redemption project does fit a certain pattern, given Green Bay's well-known penchant for successfully mining the undrafted collegiate free agent ranks, as well as compiling a strong track record in the later rounds of the draft.
On an annual basis, the Packers' personnel department is one of the league's most adept at finding players, and the team's roster tends to reflect an organizational willingness to gamble on talent that arrives in Green Bay with less than a perfect pedigree. Lyerla is just the latest example of that trend, albeit pushing the boundaries of where the Packers are usually comfortable to go on the character issue front.
• In each of the past four seasons, the Packers' 53-man Week 1 roster has featured at least three undrafted free agents, with a total of 13 players winning their long-shot bids to make the cut in that four-year span of 2010-13 -- cornerback Sam Shields ('10), safety M.D. Jennings ('11) and receiver Jarrett Boykin ('12) among them. According to the Packers, that's tied for third-most in the league in that period, trailing only two perennial losing clubs in St. Louis (17) and Cleveland (16). By contrast, Green Bay has made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons, best in the NFC and tied with New England for the league's longest such streak.
• At the end of last year's injury-marred season in Green Bay, 27 of the players on the Packers' 53-man roster (more than half) came to the team either as a sixth- or seventh-round pick, or via the undrafted route. Twenty of those were undrafted. All told, 69 of the 90 players who went to training camp last year with Green Bay wound up appearing somewhere on an NFL regular-season roster at some point during 2013, according to the Packers.
• According to a chart assembled and distributed this spring to potential 2014 collegiate free agents and their agents by the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks, Seattle ranked first last preseason in giving playing time to undrafted rookies (36.2 percent), with the Packers second at 33.6 percent. Green Bay's percentage of undrafted free agents who made its active roster at some point from 2010-13 is 24 percent, tied for fourth overall in the league, four spots better than the Seahawks' eighth-ranked 22 percent. Seattle general manager John Schneider, of course, came to Seattle in 2010 after spending eight years in the Packers' front office, and other stints working under current Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson in both Seattle and Green Bay.
"It's just been a part of our education in the personnel department,'' Thompson said. "Most of us were hired here in Green Bay by [former Packers GM] Ron Wolf, and he took that approach as a particular challenge, trying to find those guys in [collegiate] free agency was always a part of it. We're just disciples of it and we try to continue that mindset.
"Everybody loves their first-rounders and their second-rounders, but our coaches are very good with this approach, and that's maybe not always the case [with other teams]. Whoever we give them, they coach them up. We tell guys when we sign them or put them on the practice squad, 'You're here for a reason and everyone will get their chance to play.' Our veteran players and our team, they accept that. They know that's how it works here.''
And it's an easy case to make that it does work, given that Green Bay has made the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, routinely producing a draft slot in the lower third of the first round. While the midseason broken left collarbone suffered by franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers nearly doomed the Packers' 2013 season, exposing a lack of depth at the game's most pivotal position for a time, Green Bay did somehow wind up winning the NFC North at 8-7-1, thanks in large part to the re-signing of reserve QB Matt Flynn, a Packers' seventh-round pick in 2008.
But the contributions from the lower echelons of the roster were widespread beyond Flynn in Green Bay last year, with four of the team's top six tacklers going either undrafted or in the seventh round (linebacker Brad Jones, 7th round 2009; cornerback Tramon Williams, Jennings and Shields, all UDFAs); and three-quarters of the starting secondary (Williams, Shields and Jennings) going unselected out of college.
On offense, besides Flynn, last year's Packers were forced to rely on a second-leading rusher who was taken in the sixth round (James Starks, 2010), and undrafted talents at receiver (Boykin, who ranked third in catches and receiving yards), center (Evan Dietrich-Smith) and right tackle (Don Barclay). Overall, just 15 of the 53 players who ended the season with Green Bay were selected in the draft's top three rounds.
"There's a lot of players who make it here off the street,'' said Shields, the fifth-year pro who led Green Bay in interceptions (four) last season. "When you're one of those guys, like I was, you feel like you have nothing to lose and you're hungry. All of us undrafted free agents who came in with me [in 2010], we sat in one little corner [of the locker room]. We called it the 'Green Mile.' We didn't get drafted, but we stayed together as a little group there in the back, and that really helped us all move forward.
"This team believes in finding undrafted guys who are ballplayers. It doesn't matter what school you came from, from the smallest school to the biggest school. If you can play, they will make room for you.''
Thompson and the Packers are well known for their aversion to veteran free agency, although they made a surprising exception this year, signing 34-year-old defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Julius Peppers in an attempt to buttress the big-play ability of their struggling defense. But Peppers is the rarity. Come the end of training camp, you can bet Green Bay will have turned over a sizable chunk of its roster with the majority of its nine 2014 draft picks and some of its 17 collegiate free-agent signees making the grade.
Lyerla figures to have a decent shot to stick in the latter group, given his obvious athleticism and pass-catching skills, providing he can sufficiently address the maturity issues that dogged him at Oregon and led to him quitting the team, a subsequent cocaine arrest and his controversial tweets in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting tragedy. Despite having the talent to warrant a second-day draft grade, the 6-foot-4 Lyerla went undrafted and unclaimed in the initial collegiate free-agent signing frenzy, only joining the Packers after he impressed Green Bay in a two-day rookie tryout camp in May. The opportunity for impact is certainly there, given the Packers' high-octane passing game and the likely departure of unsigned veteran free agent tight end Jermichael Finley.
"You weigh it all. And every case is an individual case,'' Thompson told ESPNWisconsin.com, regarding Lyerla's signing, which raised eyebrows around the league given how much Green Bay prioritizes its locker room chemistry and all-business approach to the game. "We have always believed that, or I have always believed, that there are certain things ... that people can atone for, acknowledge their mistakes and get on with their lives. And I am a proponent of those kind of people that try to do that. And that's where we're at with Colt.''
As Seattle attempted to point out on its own behalf to agents and prospective collegiate free agents this spring via the recruiting brochure, the Packers' reputation for giving undrafted players a legitimate shot to make their roster is something that has become a real advantage.
"We certainly use that as a hard selling point, because as you know that time right after the draft is very chaotic,'' Thompson said. "Yeah, I think people know and the players know the opportunity we give here. Our veteran players all went to school somewhere where they know a player who's coming out of that school, and I think even our own players probably do a pretty good job of selling the Green Bay Packers.''
Boykin spent less than a week on Jacksonville's roster in 2012, but when he signed with Green Bay, he was well aware of the team's track record of giving younger players a long and thorough chance to impress. And he was determined to make the most of it.
"I remember coming here during rookie mini-camp and they had a meeting with us all and told us it doesn't matter where you're drafted, first round or not drafted at all, you're going to get an equal opportunity and a shot to make the team,'' said Boykin, who had a break-through 49-catch, 681-yard season in 2013, starting eight games. "And they mean it.
"The key phrase here is always 'Trust the process.' You buy into that here. I bought into it, and from there you just let everything work out on its own. When I got here I was behind Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb, all those guys. It was like, 'Wow, am I ever going to see the field?' But in practice every day I worked and competed my tail off, and over time it just naturally took its course and I was given an opportunity.''
In time maybe Boykin's experience will be similar to what receivers Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis find in Green Bay. Abbrederis, the ex-Wisconsin Badger, was the team's second fifth-round pick this year, and Janis was the Packers' final pick, in the seventh round, out of Saginaw Valley State. Besides Lyerla, other potential impact undrafted free agents who could stick in Green Bay include Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig.
More than any NFL team, the Packers stay consistently homegrown, with 50 of the 53 players on their Week 1 roster in 2013 having never seen regular-season action with anybody but Green Bay. That led the league, with Atlanta (44) and Dallas (41) a distant second and third in that regard. Of Thompson's 87 draft picks as Packers GM before the 2014 draft (2005-13), a league-best 33 remain on the roster, with 23 of his 36 picks from '10-13 still on the team.
"We're eight years into this [his tenure] and we feel like we've got a pretty good handle on it, and it takes both components to make it work,'' Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Our personnel department does a great job drafting them and finding players, and I think our coaching staff does a great job of developing players.
"The reality of the coaching profession is that you want a veteran, experienced, polished player to coach because when your players are successful then you're successful, and this is a success-based profession. But when your program and the job description is such that we're going to draft and develop players, from Day 1, there's never been a conversation otherwise. This isn't fantasy football and we don't have the benefit of playing fantasy football. You coach the ones you have, and we've always coached to the youngest guy in the room and that will never change.''
In Green Bay, why mess with success?