Throughout the Green Bay Packers storied history, their GMs and scouting departments have worked endlessly to find those undrafted hidden gems that other teams may have missed. They yearn for players that can make the roster at an inexpensive cost and contribute to the team. You might call that the ultimate value proposition among NFL GMs.
As the Green Bay Packers’ 2010 rookie camp has come to an end, 25 NFL dreams have been shattered for now. At the same time, three more tryout invitees were signed to contracts after the weekend of workouts, bringing to 14 the number of undrafted free agents (UDFAs) that will be given a chance at NFL fame and fortune with the Packers.
The Packers roster in 2009 included four major contributors that were not selected in the NFL draft: Cullen Jenkins, Atari Bigby, Tramon Williams and Ryan Grant. In addition, other UDFAs on the roster were Spencer Havner, John Kuhn, Jarret Bush, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Josh Bell, Bret Goode and late season practice squad signee Cyril Obiozor.
There is little doubt that Ted Thompson and his scouts work very hard at looking for undrafted gems. Employing less expensive UDFAs is just one way he has been able to keep the Packer’s salary structure and overall expenditures at manageable levels. It’s too early to say if he has hit the jackpot with any of them (perhaps Ryan Grant could be that guy), but overall, I think he’s done a very good job in this department.
Which got me thinking about other UDFAs in Packers history. How successful have the Packers been historically at finding high-quality UDFAs? Well, this calls for a top 10 list, I thought to myself. So I started doing the research, checking every draft year since 1960.
With one notable exception, the results were rather underwhelming. In fact, to come up with a decent top 10 list, I’d probably have to use the four current roster contributors mentioned above (Jenkins, Bigby, Williams, Grant). Personally, whenever compiling a “greatest” list, I never like to include players that haven’t had at least five years as a starter.
So, taking all of these factors into account, I decided to pare this down to a top five, which then makes for a tougher decision on the last spots and hopefully some debate about them.
I present to you my selections for the five greatest Packer UDFAs since 1960:
A few players that were in the discussion for the last spot, but didn’t quite make it:
Ryan Longwell: Certainly a nice career with the Packers, but I couldn’t live with myself if I included a field goal kicker here. Especially one that now kicks for the Vikings.
Ed West: Eleven years with the Packers, 14 years total in the NFL, West was a steady, if unspectacular player. A 14 year NFL career for an UDFA is nothing to sneeze at. Longevity points…
5) George Koonce
ILB, 6′1″, 245 pounds, 8 seasons in Green Bay, 1992-1999
112 games, 433 tackles, 122 assists, 7.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, 6 fumble recoveries
Out of East Carolina University, George Koonce was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Atlanta Falcons after the 1991 NFL Draft. He was in the Falcon’s camp with a brash second round pick named Brett Favre, but was cut during the preseason. He played in the WFL the following spring and along with Favre, was brought to Green Bay by Ron Wolf for the 1992 Season
Koonce won a starting job during his first season with the Packers and never looked back. He started all but 10 of the 112 games he played in as a Packer, and his penchant for ferocious hits made him a fan favorite. Koonce, along with Reggie White, led a defensive resurgence for the Packers; a big reason the Packers made it to two Super Bowls in the Nineties.
While Koonce deserves some consideration for the Packer Hall of Fame, he just doesn’t have the stats to justify inclusion. Nobody, however, can argue over the enjoyment Koonce brought to Packer fans when he would unleash a crushing hit on a running back.
Out of tiny West Liberty State, Murphy came to the Packers as a free agent in 1980. He was primarily Johnnie Gray’s backup for three seasons before becoming the starter in year four after Gray retired. Murphy would continue as the starting strong safety for 8 years, serving as one of the few bright spots on some pretty mediocre Packers defenses in the 1980s.
Easy to spot with with his helmet off, the bald, shiny-headed Murphy was also easy to find on the field—just follow the ball. For a safety to have 687 unassisted tackles in basically eight years of playing, it shows both how active he was and also how weak the Packers defense was in front of him. Murphy would lead the Packers in tackles 3 different seasons and is fifth all-time in career tackles for the Packers.
Murphy was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1998. Ironically, his profile on the HOF web page mistakenly describes him as a 10th round draft pick, when in fact, he was never drafted.
3) Johnnie Gray
FS-SS, 5′11″, 185 pounds, 9 seasons in Green Bay, 1975-1983
124 games, 771 tackles, 230 assists, 22 interceptions, 20 fumble recoveries, 85 punt returns, 21 kickoff returns
Out of Cal State-Fullerton, the undersized Johnnie Gray was overlooked in the 1975 draft. Fortunately, the Packers signed Gray as an undrafted free agent and found their starting safety for the next nine seasons. Gray played at the free safety position for six years, before switching to strong safety for his final three seasons.
Gray manned the Packers secondary during that black hole in the Packers defensive history we all like to forget; the 1970s and 1980s. Much like Mark Murphy, who took over the SS job when Gray retired, Johnnie Gray had to be everywhere on the field. Gray had three seasons with over 100 total tackles, and much to my surprise, is still second on the all-time Packers career tackles list. Only John Anderson has more tackles as a Packer than Johnnie Gray.
While Gray made his mark with his tackling prowess, he also contributed in many other ways. Gray recovered 20 fumbles as a Packer, good enough for second place on the Packers all-time list, tied with Ray Nitschke and only one less than Willie Davis. He also finished his Packer career with 22 interceptions, 85 punt returns and 21 kickoff returns.
Gray was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1994.
2) Paul Coffman
TE, 6′3″, 222 pounds, 8 seasons in Green Bay, 1978-1985
124 games, 322 catches, 39 TDs, 4223 Yds,
Out of Kansas State University, Paul Coffman was not drafted or even pursued by any NFL team. When a Packers assistant coach came to Kansas State to work out one of his teammates, Coffman decided to ask for a tryout with the Packers. Coffman’s request was granted, and he surprised absolutely everyone by making the team.
Although he sat the bench as a rookie, Coffman exploded onto the NFL scene his second season, starting all 16 games and catching 56 passes, breaking the Packers’ record previously held by Ron Kramer. Coffman would go on to catch 322 passes and score 39 touchdowns for the Packers, while averaging an outstanding 13.1 yards per catch.
Over his seven prime years with the Packers, Coffman averaged 46 catches per year. He was known for his precise routes, great hands, and ability to make catches with defenders draped all over him. He worked hard on his blocking, and with the help of his coaches, also developed into one of the better blocking tight ends in the league.
Paul Coffman is a three-time Pro Bowler and in 1994 was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Being a 5′10″ African American quarterback, known more for running the ball in the 1950s, did not exactly put you very high on any NFL team’s prospect list. Not surprisingly, after leaving USC, Wood was ignored in the NFL draft and his phone wasn’t ringing after the draft, either.
Wood embarked on a letter-writing campaign, but only one NFL GM responded; Vince Lombardi. Lombardi agreed to to give Wood a chance at defensive back, and it was a gambled that payed off one hundred times over.
Although he barely made the team, and mostly sat the bench while he learned a new position, by the start of his second season, he was a starter and would stay there for eleven seasons. Wood would go on to be one of the best defensive backs the game has ever known, with his athletic ability helping him to excel in all aspects of play. Pass coverage, tackling, interceptions, returning punts, Wood could do it all at a high level.
Willie Wood was an eight-time Pro Bowler and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. Wood is one of only thirteen undrafted players to have their busts in the Hall of Fame:
|1946||Frank Gatski||G||Cleveland Browns (AAFC)|
|1946||Lou Groza||T-K||Cleveland Browns (AAFC)|
|1946||Marion Motley||FB||Cleveland Browns (AAFC)|
|1946||Bill Willis||MG||Cleveland Browns (AAFC)|
|1948||Joe Perry||FB||San Francisco 49ers (AAFC)|
|1948||Emlen Tunnell||DB||New York Giants|
|1952||Dick “Night Train” Lane||DB||Los Angeles Rams|
|1960||Willie Wood||DB||Green Bay Packers|
|1963||Willie Brown||DB||Houston Oilers (Cut during training camp by Oilers and then signed by Denver Broncos.)|
|1966||Emmitt Thomas||DB||Kansas City Chiefs|
|1967||Larry Little||G||San Diego Chargers|
|1970||Jim Langer||C||Cleveland Browns (Cut by Browns during training camp and then signed by Miami Dolphins.)|
|1984||Warren Moon||QB||Houston Oilers|
|1990||John Randle||DT||Minnesota Vikings|
Unfortunately, Willie Wood is in very poor health; yet another example of an old-tme player paying the price for the savagery of the game. I discovered this while researching this piece when I came across a recent aritcle about Wood by Martin Hendricks of JSOnline.com. A highly recommended read.
I started out talking about the chances of finding that hidden gem of an UDFA. Looking at the Packers history in this department illustrates how unlikely that happenstance really is. In the last 50 years, the Packers have found a few nice shiny rocks, but only one true gem. And I have a feeling most NFL franchises would be more than happy with those results.
Jersey Al Bracco is the Green Bay Packers Draft Analyst for Drafttek.com.