Before Jayrone Elliott or Mike Pennel emerged, Joe Thomas and Adrian Hubbard were the undrafted rookies getting a lot of attention last summer.
Thomas was the first college free agent to stake his claim for a spot on the Green Bay Packers' roster last summer. Unafraid of contact, the 6-foot-1, 227-pound inside linebacker shined early in training camp with the take-no-prisoners mentality he was known for at South Carolina State.
Hubbard came with larger credentials, declaring for the NFL draft after his junior season at Alabama. A massive rusher at 6-foot-6, 257 pounds, he was projected as a mid-round pick at first, but fell off many teams' boards because of a minor heart abnormality.
Although neither player made the 53-man roster last season, the Packers saw enough potential to carry them on their practice squad last season and extend them futures contracts once it was over.
Given a second chance, both are back to make the most of it.
"I think the second year is always going to be more comfortable," Hubbard said. "It's like college. You get the one year under your belt and the second year you're like, 'OK, I know how things work.' "
Stopped by injury
Described by his college coaches as a "tackling machine," the Packers immediately took notice of Thomas' tenacity. He vaulted up the depth chart on defense and special teams in the first two weeks of training camp and was in contention for a role entering the preseason slate.
That was until Thomas had his leg rolled up on after his fourth defensive snap in the preseason opener against Tennessee. The knee injury instantly squashed his bid for a roster spot.
"The play was over and someone fell on my leg and that was it," Thomas said. "It was a bummer but it didn't take long. I've been hurt before. Just got to work hard — work harder — get back healthy real quick and you've just to forget about it and leave it in the past."
The Packers placed Thomas on injured reserve at the end of training camp and then reached a two-week injury settlement with him. Before he went back home to South Carolina, the Packers told Thomas to stay in shape in case they called him back once the injury healed.
Thomas wasn't sure if that call would ever come, but he stayed ready. While any other team could have signed Thomas once he was cleared, NFL rules require the team that waived an injured player to wait at least six weeks after the player is cleared from injury to re-sign him.
So the Packers had to wait two months before they could bring him back, which they did on Nov. 3, signing him to the practice squad.
As he stood by his locker last week, Thomas looked the part of an NFL inside linebacker. His aggressive approach and instincts also translate on special teams, where he starred during his first two years at South Carolina State.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy was surveying more than 50 players at the rookie camp, so he didn't have much time to isolate specific players. He has taken notice of the work the returning linebacker has done this offseason, though.
"Joe has been here, looks good," McCarthy said. "He definitely needs to pick up where he left off and I think he'll definitely do that. He's done very well in the strength and conditioning participation so far. He's off to a good spring."
The landscape hasn't changed much from last year at inside linebacker. If anything, there's more opportunity after the Packers released veterans A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, and chose not to re-sign Jamari Lattimore.
There are a few additions with fourth-round draft pick Jake Ryan, undrafted rookie Tavarus Dantzler and street free agent Josh Francis, who was playing in the Indoor Football League before Green Bay signed him in March.
Otherwise, the competition is pretty much the same with Sam Barrington, Carl Bradford, Nate Palmer and Thomas jousting for whatever reps are available when Clay Matthews isn't rotating in at the position.
"The opportunity's wide open," Thomas said. "There's a lot of guys here but I'm going to continue to be me, continue to work hard and if my hard work elevates me to the starting spot, so be it."
Falling just short
Hubbard has similar goals. A year ago, many expected him to follow in the path of Andy Mulumba, Dezman Moses, Vic So'oto and Frank Zombo as undrafted outside linebackers who made the uphill climb to the final roster.
Instead, Hubbard spent the entire season on the practice squad after Elliott seized the final spot in training camp by recording five sacks in the preseason.
The competition remains stiff at edge rusher, but Hubbard feels he's ready for it. He added more muscle this offseason and returned to Green Bay early to get inside the weight room.
"He's put on some weight. He's put on some size," McCarthy said. "He's really taken a huge step like you see from every player that's been here from Year 1 going into Year 2. I'm impressed with what Hubbard has done so far. He was here early prior to the offseason program. He's put a lot of work in."
Like Hubbard, Thomas felt more comfortable in his second camp appearance. The Football Championship Subdivision isn't the NFL. Thomas admits his first rookie camp experience was "scary."
During the three-day camp, Thomas was constantly fearful of whether he was doing something wrong. He knew NFL teams have little invested in undrafted rookies and can choose to turn the page whenever they like.
The Packers didn't quit on Thomas, though. After bringing him back last November, the organization is anxious to see if he can pick up where he left off last summer. If it hadn't been for the injury, it's possible a trio of undrafted rookies might have made the opening roster last year instead of just Elliott and Pennel.
This year, Thomas is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
"I'm just a football player, man," Thomas said. "Put me anywhere on the field and I'm going to try to do my best to achieve."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod