Short shelf life for undrafted free agents

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - Based on the contribution the Green Bay Packers received last season and the potential for improvement this year, the 2016 class of undrafted free agents could be their best ever under general manager Ted Thompson.

They signed a 12-year high of 29 undrafted rookies between the end of the draft and the end of training camp and nine of those players spent time on the 53-man roster, accounting for 62 games played and four starts.

Two of those players — safeties Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans – played in all 16 regular-season games and three postseason games. Cornerback Josh Hawkins played in 14 of those 19 games and receiver Geronimo Allison played in 13.

In addition, running back Don Jackson started a game and quarterback Joe Callahan spent 10 games on the 53-man roster as the No. 3 quarterback.

What a coup that was, right?


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The truth of the matter is that for all the time and effort the Packers have put in scouting hidden talent in the college ranks, they have uncovered very few players who last more than a couple of years in the NFL.

For every Sam Shields, there are dozens of Scorpio Babers. For every Lane Taylor, there is a room full of Fabbians Ebbeles. For every Joe Thomas, there are countless Kevin Schimmelmanns. For every Evan Dietrich-Smith, there a bunch of Tommie Draheims. For every Jarrett Boykin, there are scores of Curenski Gilleylens.

When the Packers struck gold with Shields in 2010, they were the envy of many teams in the NFL. A receiver for three seasons at Miami, Shields came into camp and outplayed everyone not named Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. He wound up being a critical piece to the Super Bowl puzzle and started 62 games in seven seasons until repeated concussions caused the Packers to cut him in January.

Unofficially, the Packers have signed 207 undrafted players before to the start of the regular season in the Thompson era and not a single one has been elected to a Pro Bowl. Shields is the only one to play in one, serving as a sub for Darrelle Revis after the 2014 season.

Of the 207, a total of 59 have played in at least one regular-season game, but only six have made 20 career starts anywhere in the NFL and only seven (Shields, Dietrich-Smith, Taylor, Boykin, M.D. Jennings, Don Barclay and LaDarius Gunter) have made at least 10 career starts as a member of the Packers.

There’s no question the Packers have uncovered talent worthy of playing in the NFL, but the truth is, only in the case of Shields has it helped them win a Super Bowl. There’s a reason for that, too.

“Most of the time the reason they’re not getting drafted is they’re too short or too small or their football instincts aren’t very good,” said one NFL executive. “They’re not very good at something and that’s what’s holding them back from being drafted.”

However, in the salary-cap era, teams don’t always have the money to spend on veteran backups or special teams players, so they go cheap with minimum-wage undrafted free agents. Since not all of their draft choices are going to make it, they need backup.

The Packers had an outstanding year in 2016 filling their special-teams units with players such as Brice, Evans, Hawkins and Dorleant. They were able to play inexperienced players and not have a huge drop-off in their coverage and blocking units on special teams.

“That’s a big issue,” the executive said of the salary cap. “If you put together a solid core of free agents, you might save $6 or $7 million of cap space. That might allow you to keep a core player that you might otherwise lose because you can’t afford him.”

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Where the Packers run into trouble is that they’re adding those players on top of a class of seven to 10 draft picks, which means when they start having injuries, they’re almost always replacing a starter with a rookie. It happened consistently last year with Brice, Hawkins, Allison and running back Don Jackson all either starting or playing a major role on offense or defense at some point.

There have been some years when the Packers haven’t needed rookie free agents as much as others, but since 2011, Thompson has signed 20 or more every year except 2014 (18). In the last three seasons, undrafted players have made 32 starts for the Packers.

When asked about all the effort the Packers put into rookie free agency, Thompson said at his pre-draft news conference that it’s more than worth it.

“We spend a lot of time on it and we make no bones about it,” Thompson said. “We’re active in the preparation part of it and we’re active in trying to execute it once the draft is over with. That’s part of the deal.

“I don’t know whether you say it’s more important than anything else, but you can look at our roster and see that we’ve got players from there and they’re still here.”

That might be true, but the players who do make it to the 53-man roster don’t stay very long. In fact, most of the time, when they leave the Packers, their NFL careers are over.

There are exceptions. Thompson has unearthed players such as center Chris White, cornerback Leigh Torrence, end Jason Hunter, defensive tackle Daniel Muir, linebacker Danny Lansanah, guard Nick McDonald, linebacker Dezman Moses and center Patrick Lewis only to see them spend the bulk of their careers elsewhere.

But none of them turned into Pro Bowlers or impact starters.

Not counting the 2016 class (since they have not had a chance to play multiple seasons yet), the average length of stay in Green Bay for undrafted free agents is just over two years. And that is crediting players a full year if they appeared in at least one game.

The only players who have stuck around longer than three years are tight end Spencer Havner, Dietrich-Smith, Shields, Jamari Lattimore, Barclay, Sean Richardson and Taylor. Shields is the only one to cash in on a lucrative second contract.

Nevertheless, the Packers sell themselves as a place where undrafted free agents can make it.

“We very much push the notion that if you come here, historically speaking, you have a pretty good chance of making the team, making the practice squad, making something where you can ply your trade,” Thompson said.

Just don’t expect to stay long.

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