There seems to be a recent trend within the blogosphere and social media where undrafted free agents are expected to fill glaring roster holes for NFL teams. It happens every year. There is always going to be an unexpected youngster who turns heads in camp and the headlines start rolling in about the surprise Undrafted Free Agent (UDFA) that is going to defy the odds, make the roster, and make a bid for the pro bowl.
For Green Bay specifically, Allen Lazard is being touted as a legitimate number two option for Aaron Rodgers behind Davante Adams. While, I am a big believer in Lazard, the jury is still out on his ability to be a legitimate receiving weapon.
That’s not a knock, just a few short years ago, after battling injuries for most of his second season, the idea was floated that Adams himself was a bust. No, I’m not joking. Who knew it took time to develop world class talent?
For Green Bay, these outsized expectations for UDFAs to be significant contributors seems particularly exaggerated. Maybe it’s because some of Green Bay’s most revered players were undrafted. The 2010 super bowl team alone had nine UDFAs who were major contributors:
· Cullen Jenkins
· Atari Bigby
· Tramon Williams
· Ryan Grant
· John Kuhn
· Jarret Bush
· Evan Dietrich-Smith
· Josh Bell
· Bret Goode
The great Ron Wolf was notorious for churning those bottom 7 roster spots trying to fine tune the squad. Without that philosophy, you would’ve never heard of Gilbert Brown.
It also could be that it’s just difficult to get premium free agents to come to Green Bay, although I’m sure the Smith brothers would beg to differ.
All things considered, the idea that Lazard is all of a sudden going to become Julio Jones is both unrealistic and imprudent.
The Reality of UDFAs
UDFAs are cheap, durable, short-term labor options meant to tie over rosters and to provide much-needed depth. They’re mercenaries who don’t cost much and who you’re hoping will shine in limited action particularly during a playoff push.
Obviously if one hits and turns into Kurt Warner, that’s a coup, but they are not going to comprise your team’s core, and you ideally will not need them to fill glaring roster holes.
The sweet spot for UDFAs is in an occasional matchup winner (i.e. Robert “Big Bob” Tonyan) or a rotational interior defensive lineman (i.e. Tyler Lancaster) or a special teams contributor (i.e. long snapper Hunter Bradley). You don’t want to have to fill a handful of your starting spots with UDFAs. Just ask the Packers about how that went when they had to travel to Atlanta to matchup against Julio Jones with Ladarius Gunter with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
This is not to say that UDFAs are unimportant. On the flip side, they quite possibly are the most important spots on your roster. One special team play can be the difference between a playoff berth and the offseason. Having depth in the conference championship could be enough to give you a shot at a Lombardi trophy.
They are essential to accomplishing the damn-near impossible task of constructing a super bowl winning roster.
Building a Super Bowl Roster is Practically Impossible
38% of the NFL’s current teams have never won a Lombardi Trophy, and hopefully we will never live in a world where the Minnesota Vikings and “Defending Super Bowl Champs” are ever used in the same sentence.
Additionally, Seven franchises only have one super bowl victory. That means nearly 60% of the league has limited to no super bowl success.
Those 19 franchises can attest to how hard it is to field a super bowl winner.
You must be ridiculously good at talent acquisition, then you must be ridiculously good at developing that talent. Then, you must be ridiculously good (and lucky) at keeping that talent healthy, AND you need to be able to structure contracts in a way that retains just a enough talent to maintain quality, while also maintaining the ability to add talent where you need it, all while dealing with peers who are trying to undermine you at every turn.
You also don’t really know what you have out of a draft pick for at least 2-3 years, particularly for your 3rd-5th round draft picks.
Bottomline: hitting on your draft picks is important, it’s hard, and when you inevitably cannot do it, you need to fill in your holes with competent 2nd and 3rd tier guys via free agency.
So How Have the Packers Performed with Rookies?
Over the past five years, the Packers have made 44 draft picks and filled 45 roster spots with UDFAs (I did not include UDFAs that were signed and cut before the season, or never got called up from the Practice Squad).
Green Bay Packer Draft Picks 2015 - 2019
Out of their 44 draft picks, I’m comfortable in saying that they have hit on nine.
Here are some highlights:
Kenny Clark – an ascending talent, who is not in the stratosphere of Aaron Donald, but is a pro bowler who could break into the realm of superstar within the next couple years (KC is in orange in the below graphic)
Jaire Alexander – shown the ability to be amongst the league’s best lockdown corners
Aaron Jones – led the league in touchdowns in 2019, and had to compete with the likes of Christian McCaffery and Dalvin Cook all year to do it
Darnell Savage Jr. – coming off a strong rookie season; too early to tell, but his ceiling is in space
J.K. Scott – c’mon he’s JK-47
Kevin King – after a couple of injury-riddled early seasons, he provides a great compliment to Alexander
Jamaal Williams – has starter capabilities on most teams that don’t have Aaron Jones already
Elgton Jenkins – again had a strong rookie season, but the word “All-Pro” is already being thrown around
Blake Martinez – your team leader in tackles two years running
They also flat out missed on six:
Here are the lowlights:
Damarious Randall – threw a temper tantrum against the Bears and was shipped off to Cleveland in exchange for *cough* Deshon Kizer
Josh Jones – had the ego to play NFL safety, with none of the ability to back it up
Vince Biegel – you never want your mid-round draft picks to get cut after one season
Jason Spriggs – was touted as the next Bulaga, and turned out to be the next Marshall Newhouse
Quinten Rollins – 1 year of experience at Miami of Ohio? Sign me up!
Ty Montgomery – Ok, a “bust” is harsh, but I address this in a second
Everyone else was either a serviceable depth option or did not cost enough draft capital to significantly hinder the team, and thus be deemed a bust.
Said another way, over the last 5 years, the Packers have been able to find at least 2 bona fide starters each year. They also had a ridiculously bad draft in 2015 where they spent a first-round pick on Damarious Randall, a second round pick on Quinten Rollins, and a 3rd Rounder on Ty Montgomery.
Again, there is an argument to be made about whether or not Ty Montgomery is a bust, but when you trade a 3rd round pick mid-season and in the midst of a playoff push, I don't think you can consider that a success. I will say though, I would have loved to see what Lafleur could have done to impact Montgomery’s career.
Ultimately, this is what you expect out of your draft picks: you’ll hit on a couple, miss on a couple, and the rest will fall in between as solutions for the next 3-5 years. Then you supplement the roster with proven talent that you can afford through unrestricted free agency.
What about their 45 UDFAs?
As for Green Bay’s 45 UDFAs? Well, for as much credit as Green Bay gets for finding those diamonds in the rough, their last 5 years haven’t necessarily been crazy.
Out of their 45 UDFA signings since 2015, 35 are no longer with the team, another 4 are firmly sitting on the bubble going into 2020. Five of them are exactly what you’re looking for: solid depth and rotational options that are good in limited action, but won’t necessarily set the world on fire.
Darrius Shepherd showed promise, but was more of a liability than a reliability when he touched the field. Alex Light probably will no longer be needed as a utility option on the offensive line with the depth they have going into 2020. Joe Callahan is now going to have to compete with First-Round pick Jordan Love.
I’m a HUGE fan of Big Bob Tonyan, but he’s a depth option at TE. Tyler Lancaster is a stout rotational element to the interior D-Line. Jake Kumerow AKA Touchdown Jesus is quickly becoming my new Chester Marcol. And, Raven Greene shows the ability to be a legit 2nd option in the secondary.
None of the 35 former Packers could hold a candle to the UDFAs that currently own Super Bowl XLV rings.
Geronimo Allison was close, but his 2019 campaign did not earn him a second contract. Ladarius Gunter’s career will always be marred by the 2016 NFC Championship Game. Jermaine Whitehead punched a guy during a game, was released, signed by the Browns and then cut for getting into a Twitter beaf with a fan. Not necessarily Ryan Grant material.
There is one, one UDFA that is being thought of as a major contributor going into next season, and that is Lazard.
Here’s the Point
Fans love to beg the coaching staff to give guys like Jeff Janis more opportunities. Talking heads love to rag on the Packers for giving up guys like Taysom Hill. Everyone is looking for the next Warren Moon or Tramon Williams, a guy who went undrafted, but could be a legit NFL player.
Here’s the reality, you cannot expect undrafted free agents to make up the core of your roster and make a serious run at a super bowl. So, you must stop looking to them to bear the weight of the season.