Packers cornerback Rico Gafford may run the 40-yard dash in 4.22 seconds, but he wouldn't mind sticking around in one place
GREEN BAY – It’s not the job that gets to cornerback Rico Gafford, it’s the travel.
Playing football in the NFL means more to the 26-year-old journeyman than he can describe and so he remains committed to making a 53-man roster despite living out of boxes and never knowing when he’ll have to pack up and move again.
It’s not just the travel between cities that has worn him out, but also the transfer from cornerback to receiver and back to cornerback again that has made his journey so trying.
Running the 40-yard dash in a reported 4.22 seconds is enough to draw interest from around the league but getting teams to believe he can be full-time asset is something different. He is on his sixth team since signing with Tennessee as an undrafted free agent out of Wyoming in 2018 and hoping he has finally found a home with the Green Bay Packers.
“I've been in a lot of places,” Gafford said. “I'm going into year five now and I'm just trying to make sense of it all. I'm tired of traveling all over, going from team to team. So for me to be back at DB, I really know I can play and play well.
“Being with the Packers is really huge for me and so I’m staying on top of things, so when I step on the field with the guys, I’m ready.”
The 5-9½, 184-pound Gafford’s best hope for making the 53-man roster is to excel on special teams, but he at least must show he has promise at cornerback, too, because the Packers don’t want to keep Gafford at the expense of letting a better cornerback prospect go. There just aren’t that many good cornerbacks around and Gafford needs to show he can play there.
Once again, he has been put in a tough spot. The Packers signed him off the street on Jan. 26 as a wide receiver, but midway through the offseason program, coach Matt LaFleur approached Gafford to see if he would switch back to cornerback. The feeling was that he had a better chance of making the team at cornerback given how many young receivers the Packers added through the draft.
“I think we really liked the athlete,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said when asked if he envisioned Gafford as a receiver when he signed him. “We got him here and as we started kind of looking at how the team might shake out, we don't have a crystal ball, but we just thought it might be better to move him over.
“And talk about a guy that's made a lot of his opportunities. He certainly has.”
Gafford has called several NFL cities home
Gafford’s opportunities up until his move back to cornerback came with trap doors.
Consider this timeline:
- 2018: Signed with Tennessee as an undrafted free agent. Cut by Tennessee on Aug. 31. Signed to the Raiders practice squad on Sept. 3. Moved to wide receiver. Signed to the 53-man roster on Dec. 18.
- 2019: Cut by the Raiders after training camp. Signed to the Raiders’ practice squad. Signed to the active roster on Nov. 27.
- 2020: Made the 53-man roster coming out of training camp. Played in three games. Released Nov. 8. Signed to the practice squad Nov. 10.
Through this time, Gafford thought his future was as a wide receiver. Raiders coach Jon Gruden was convinced his future was there and moved him in the middle of his rookie year.
“It was honestly me coming to practice and one of the receivers got hurt in practice and I had played some on the offensive side on the practice squad,” Gafford said. “So, I’m running and making plays and all that type of stuff and Coach Gruden was like, ‘Wow, you might actually be able to make it as a receiver in the league.’
“He’s like, ‘I want to make you the next Tyreek Hill,’ and I’m like, ‘Let’s do it. I want to play ball, coach.’”
Truthfully, it wasn’t the best move for Gafford, although he said the opportunity to work with quarterback Derek Carr and wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett and learn the ins and outs of the passing game helped him be a better cornerback. He caught a 49-yard touchdown pass from Carr in 2019, but overall, his contribution as a receiver was a blip on the screen.
Those who were around before he was moved to receiver, saw the potential he had at cornerback.
“I think he can be a great corner,” said safety Dallin Leavitt, who played for the Raiders from 2018-21. “He’s extremely fast. He’s got next-level speed. On special teams, he’s a great flyer. Our punter, A.J. Cole, loved Rico. He was a great receiver but he’s more natural playing DB. That’s what he played in college.”
West Des Moines native was shunned by Iowa Hawkeyes
Gafford, who is from West Des Moines, Iowa, and won both the 100- and 200-meter Division 4A track and field events his senior year, never got a scholarship offer from the University of Iowa and chose Wyoming in part because they played Iowa his junior year. He wound up making a one-handed interception in the game, helping to ease some of the hurt of not being asked to play for his state college.
Through it all, Gafford’s speed has served him well and explains in part why teams keep calling.
He joined Arizona in 2021, was waived at the end of training camp and picked up by the Buffalo Bills, who then waived him three days later. He joined Denver’s practice squad in September but wasn’t called up to the 53-man roster. When Denver’s staff was fired, he looked for a new opportunity and found it in Green Bay.
Gafford’s chances of making the 53-man roster aren’t 100% and an ankle injury he suffered last week hasn’t helped his cause. But he gets plenty of work with the No. 2 nickel unit, has gotten a lot of reps on special teams and remains in the mix with Kiondre Thomas, Kabion Ento and Keisean Nixon for probably one cornerback spot.
It would help Gafford’s cause immensely if he made some splash plays against Kansas City in the preseason finale Thursday night. A long kickoff return, an interception, a couple of pass breakups, whatever it is, he must separate himself from the others.
If he does, maybe that one-handed interception won’t stand as the highlight of his football career.
“Oh, absolutely,” Gafford said of making the 53-man roster being the new highlight. “I've been on a few teams throughout my career — and I wouldn't even count Buffalo; man, I was out there for like two days — where I haven't been to the playoffs at all in my career and then just being on a team like this with the environment here.
“It's just a different type of vibe here, just walking around seeing the guys how they work, take care of the bodies and all that type of stuff. It's different. So, I’m locked in and I'm on board.”
And, for the first time in a while, hoping he can unpack all his boxes.