There’s draft and develop.
And then there’s undrafted and develop.
For the Green Bay Packers’ defense, the latter will be key to their hopes in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Atlanta. Linebacker Joe Thomas and cornerback LaDarius Gunter have gone from relative afterthoughts at the start of training camp to absolutely vital members of the team throughout the season. If they play well against the Falcons, chances are the Packers will be playing in the Super Bowl in two weeks.
Thomas was the Packers’ No. 3 inside linebacker entering the season behind the fourth-round tandem of second-year player Jake Ryan and rookie Blake Martinez. Thomas, though, supplanted Martinez in the lineup. He finished fourth on the team with 77 tackles. His nine passes defensed are more than Ryan and Martinez combined. In a spread-the-field game against Atlanta’s dynamic running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who combined for 1,599 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns plus 85 catches, 883 yards and five touchdowns, Thomas’ speed will be critical in combating the backs’ game-breaking ability.
Thomas doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a space-game style of linebacker but these matchups best suit his style.
“Me personally, I love playing against guys like Dallas that love to run the ball. I love that challenge,” he said. “But my abilities do serve well in this game, being able to cover and run in space.”
Thomas joined the Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He was released at the end of training camp in 2015 and signed to Dallas’ practice squad. His career changed after the Packers beat Seattle early that season. Clay Matthews spent every snap of that game at inside linebacker. Green Bay won the game but the Packers realized that wasn’t a winning formula. So, they plucked Thomas off the Cowboys’ practice squad to fill the dime-linebacker role so Matthews could move to the edge for pass-rushing situations. Thomas played well last season and only has gotten better this season.
“It’s a league of opportunity,” he said. “I feel like I’ve taken advantage of my opportunity. I’ve gained experience and I’ve learned from mistakes and I’ve gotten better throughout the season.”
Nobody knows more about it being a “league of opportunity” than Gunter. Gunter barely played as an undrafted rookie last year, but the decision to let Casey Hayward sign a free-agent deal with San Diego moved Gunter up a notch to No. 4. Now, due to the season-ending concussion sustained by Sam Shields in Week 1 and the sporadic health and play of second-year players Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, Gunter has assumed the role of No. 1 corner. He’s been great at times – the hole in the locker room left by the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. two weeks ago is proof of that. He was overmatched by Dallas’ Dez Bryant last week. But through the ups and downs and this unexpected path, Gunter has looked every challenge straight in the eye.
“I think it fits his personality,” coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “This is the way he’s wired. He’s never backed down from anything from the day he arrived here. So, I think this is right in his wheelhouse as far as his personality and his mental makeup.”
On Sunday, the challenge is Julio Jones. He’s arguably the best receiver in the NFL. There’s no arguing that he’s the most productive receiver in NFL history, with a league-record 96.3 receiving yards per game.
“I’ve just got to go compete, you know? That’s what it all boils down to. It’ll be fun,” Gunter said.
Even the unflappable Gunter is struck by this year’s turn of events. Given a healthy depth chart last year, Gunter couldn’t get on the field. Now, he’s lining up against Beckham, Bryant and Jones in the playoffs.
With Thomas and undrafted rookie safety Kentrell Brice, who plays in the dime defense and could be thrust into more action if veteran Morgan Burnett (thigh) is limited, the undrafted-and-developed defenders will have a central role in this game.
“Oh, man. It’s crazy,” Gunter said. “I would never thought that coming into this season. You prepare like a starter each and every week so you’ll be ready for moments like this.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.