Undrafted and Develop

Despite an excellent roster, the Packers have found more undrafted talent than just about any team over the past five seasons.

Ted Thompson’s strategy in college free agency isn’t anything extraordinary.

Sign as many as you can, turn them over to the coaches and hope for the best.

“You just don’t know,” Thompson said. “Basically in free agency, it’s shooting a shotgun with pellets when a bird flew. You’re trying to get as many as you can.”

Thompson’s got plenty during his tenure.

Nose tackle Mike Pennel and outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott are the latest undrafted rookies to make the opening-game roster. That broke a four-year streak of at least three undrafted free agents making the Week 1 roster but continued a trend, nonetheless. From 2010 through 2013 (data is not available for 2014 since the season has not started), Green Bay had 13 undrafted rookies win spots on the Week 1 roster, tied for third-most in the league behind St. Louis (17) and Cleveland (16).

“Good personnel (department) bringing in good guys,” said linebackers coach Winston Moss, who has been one of the beneficiaries of Thompson’s unsung signings.

Undrafted success is vital for all teams, regardless of whether they are a draft-and-develop team like Green Bay or a team that spends heavily in veteran free agency. With so much of the salary cap invested in a few players at the top of the roster, teams need a steady flow of cheap labor. For the Packers, the undrafted free agents are given ample opportunities to impress. And Green Bay’s history in keeping undrafted rookies has made for a handy recruiting tool, with those players knowing they’ll get a fair shake.

“We commit a lot of time and a lot of resources to bring our young guys along,” Moss said. “This is an organization which favors working the young guy and building from within, and not necessarily going out to really reload with veteran-type guys. So, I think it’s a great situation. The young guys have taken a great advantage of using the resources and embracing that ability to get a lot of reps, get a lot of teaching, get a lot of coaching, improve. We’ve (had) a lot of injuries. With those injuries have come a lot of opportunity and so that probably factors in, as well. But for the most part, we’ve always liked to develop that young guy and I think we’ve done a very good job collectively bringing in the right guys and committing a lot of time and resources to those guys as well and they’ve responded.”

Pennel took advantage of B.J. Raji’s season-ending biceps injury to make the roster. In one regard, Pennel made the roster almost by default, with Raji and third-round pick Khyri Thornton winding up on injured reserve. However, Pennel certainly played well enough to win a spot, regardless of injuries. At 332 pounds, he’s the heaviest lineman on the roster by a wide margin — Letroy Guion checks in at 315 — so, at the very least — he’ll have a key role in run-stopping situations.

“He’s a hard-working, good kid that is eager to learn,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “He’s a fortunate guy because he’s got two veterans there with B.J. and Letroy. What I can gather in the meeting room, they really like him as a person so they’re always talking to him about where you’re putting your hands and stuff like that, so he gets a lot of good, veteran leadership that way.”

Elliott is the latest linebacker to have beaten the odds, joining the likes of Frank Zombo (2010), Vic So’oto (2011), Jamari Lattimore (2011), Dezman Moses (2012) and Andy Mulumba (2013).

During training camp, Thompson issued a word of warning about preseason production. Usually, lesser players are on the field at the end of games, so a standout performance — such as the one turned in by Elliott at St. Louis, where he recorded three sacks in four plays — might not mean all that much from an evaluation standpoint.

So Elliott drew a holding penalty and collected his NFL-leading fifth sack on back-to-back plays against Kansas City’s starting right tackle last week.

“I think that pretty much confirmed that he can do some good things,” Moss said.

Now comes the hard part: Making an impact in the regular season. And, looking long term, making an impact over the long haul. There hasn’t been much staying power in that aforementioned group of linebackers. Lattimore is the only second-team player; Zombo (with the Chiefs) and Mulumba are listed as third-string linebackers, and So’oto (by the Steelers) and Moses (by the Chiefs) were released at the end of camp this summer.

“He just simply has to understand that he was impressive in the preseason, but all that’s history now,” Moss said. “He has to move forward with really starting all over again. This is the regular season now, so the approach is totally different. There’s game plans now, there’s studying, there’s developing information on him specifically. So, what he’s done in the preseason doesn’t necessarily mean that he can have that same type of success during the regular season. He has to take it upon himself to be able to work just as hard, or even more so, to where he has to have an understanding where if the opportunity presents itself, it’s a different ballgame now. He has to treat it as such, to where what happened or what he’s done in the preseason doesn’t mean that it’s going to work in the regular season. It’s real now. These guys (are) steady. They take away what you do best, and they force you to go to second and third reactions to be able to play.”

Elliott realizes that and has the proper perspective. After battling to be on the roster, he’ll be in a weekly battle to be among the 46 active players on gameday.

“At the end of the day, it’s about production,” Elliott said. “A guy like me, they don’t really need pass rushers with Clay Matthews and Pep (Julius Peppers). They need a guy for special teams and for me to learn from Clay and Pep. Maybe I can develop in a couple years but I really just want to get out there on special teams and stick around.”

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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