Pre-draft visits sell prospects on Packers
Every late-round prospect keeps a list of potential suitors close by on the last day of the NFL draft.
The ones who are chosen toss it aside, but many undrafted players lean on it when determining where to sign once the controlled chaos of college free agency starts.
Decisions are made in an instant, so it's important to do homework beforehand. Finding the right fit is crucial and sometimes can be the difference between a lengthy NFL career and a one-and-done appearance in training camp.
Studying depth charts and seeking informed opinions go only so far. There's no replacing the value of a face-to-face meeting with an organization. Based on recent history, it's a market the Green Bay Packers appear to have cornered.
General manager Ted Thompson prefers to use pre-draft visits to circle back with possible late-round picks or priority free agents who might not have been invited to the NFL combine. For the prospects, it's an opportunity to gauge a team's interest.
Alabama-Birmingham tight end Kennard Backman took three visits: Green Bay, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. It was his tour of the Packers' facilities and a conversation with tight end coach Jerry Fontenot that stood out.
It turned out to be a moot point since Green Bay liked Backman enough to take him in the sixth round. Still, he and his agent James Krenis had the Packers at the top of their list if he wasn't picked.
"I really did feel like Coach Font liked me — I guess he did or else I wouldn't be up here," Backman said, laughing. "I felt like he kind of had a plan with me sitting down and talking with him. Telling him what my strengths and weaknesses were, I felt like I would fit in here and that's probably one of the reasons I kept them at the top of my list, especially if I was going to go undrafted."
Every year, the Packers tend to acquire a handful of their pre-draft visits, but this appears to be one of their bigger hauls. They drafted Backman and Oklahoma fullback Aaron Ripkowski in the sixth round, and have signed at least five others who visited Green Bay.
Matt Rotheram was among those. The former Pittsburgh offensive lineman said he was offered more bonus money by a couple of other teams, but chose Green Bay because it was the best opportunity to make the 53-man roster.
Stony Brook receiver Adrian Coxson, Texas A&M-Commerce receiver Ricky Collins, Western Kentucky tight end Mitchell Henry and Bethune-Cookman linebacker Tavarus Dantzler round out the list of other undrafted free agents who visited.
The Packers recently developed some statistics to indicate how much more they've used undrafted players compared to the rest of the NFL. According to ESPN.com, they've received nearly 23,000 more snaps (77,079) than the next-closest team (54,105) since Thompson became general manager in 2005.
Like Backman, a selling point for Ripkowski was his meeting with Packers running backs coach Sam Gash, a two-time Pro Bowler who played 12 years at Ripkowski's position. Collins chose Green Bay because of the small-town vibe, the franchise's history and the structure of the offense.
"I had a lot of offers, but with Green Bay, I liked the tradition, the winning success they have year-in and year-out and I felt like I could come in and be a fit in this offense," said Collins, who had nearly 1,200 receiving yards last season. "What I learned from the (visit) is it was a close-knit town. It's a small town. Fans love Green Bay like no other. I really took that in."
NFL teams are allowed up to 30 pre-draft visits with players who didn't attend a local college or aren't from the metropolitan area. The Packers don't disclose visitors, but most of the names leak out.
Few are highly coveted prospects. The players the Packers typically bring in have only a handful of other pre-draft offers. That's something a lot of prospects don't forget once the draft is over.
It certainly was a contributing factor for Henry, who caught 78 passes for 1,094 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Hilltoppers. He chose the Packers because they showed the most interest in him throughout the pre-draft process.
Every second matters once college free agency starts immediately following the end of the draft. When Henry was plotting his next move, he reflected back on his visit in Green Bay and was sold. When he arrived for rookie camp last week, Henry already knew his way around the team's facilities. He felt at home.
"It definitely helped a ton. I remember I wasn't as nervous coming here because I knew where everything was," Henry said. "I'd already met the tight ends coach. I already meet a lot of the coaches and players, so it felt a lot more comfortable than going somewhere else that offered me and not knowing what to expect there."
The Packers have had at least one undrafted rookie make their initial 53-man roster since 2005. Some of their biggest success stories have been Pro Bowl cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, and center Evan Dietrich-Smith.
The Packers don't like to fill out rosters with aging veterans. They prefer prospects who have their best years ahead of them. It's led to countless other undrafted players suiting up for the Packers upon a midseason promotion from the practice squad.
Currently, the Packers have 18 undrafted rookies making a bid for roster spots. The reality is most won't make it, but those who visited before the draft hope they're able to take up permanent residence at Lambeau Field.
"It's our path, it's our plan," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Draft and develop, we've been doing it since Day 1 and the statistics speak for themselves. You have to have it. When the personnel department and the coaching staff are on the same page, good things happen. We've had that in place here for 10 years."
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