Every team around the NFL has a certain number of star players - players who are looked toward to carry the team. Frequently though, the thing that sets apart successful teams is how much of a contribution they can get from the players whose jerseys you won't often see on the backs of the fans cheering on from the stands.
In the current era of free agency and the salary cap, rosters are often stretched thin and teams often rely on little-known undrafted free agents and call-ups from the practice squad to play a key role in winning games.
This is where a team's pro and college scouting staffs really get a chance to shine. If the scouts hadn't put in countless hours of research and evaluation, these players might slip through the cracks.
The 2004 Green Bay Packers were a team that definitely benefited from the hard work of their personnel staff. Throughout the season, the Green and Gold got solid play out of a host of players whose road to Lambeau Field wasn't the most conventional one.
For example, players like Kevin Barry, Tony Fisher, Jason Horton, Cullen Jenkins and Paris Lenon - all of these players started their NFL careers by being signed as undrafted free agents by the Packers. Barry, Fisher and Lenon were making contributions before 2004, but Jenkins and Horton made an impact in their first season with the Pack.
After initially coming to Green Bay in 2003 as a rookie out of Central Michigan, Jenkins didn't make the team in his first attempt but re-signed with the team last January and was sent to NFL Europe to get some game experience.
His time with the Cologne Centurions seemed to pay off, as Jenkins was one of the key cogs in the Packers' defensive line rotation throughout the 2004 season. Especially following early-season injuries to Grady Jackson and James Lee, Jenkins was called on frequently and he came through with flying colors.
Jenkins made six starts on the year and the first-year player tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks on the season. The versatile tackle/end tallied a total of 28 tackles on the year and turned in a lineman's "hat trick" at Philadelphia when he recorded a sack, forced fumble, and fumble recovery all on the same play as he took the ball away from Donovan McNabb early in that contest.
Horton was another find by the scouting staff that made a solid contribution in his first season in Green Bay. The cornerback earned a job with an impressive showing in training camp after coming to the Packers from the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts, the team he joined after leaving North Carolina A&T.
Special teams were the place where Horton made his biggest impact, finishing third on the team with 16 stops on kick coverage over the course of the season. He also occasionally filled in on defense, making five tackles in 14 games.
2004 saw the league increase each team's practice squad from a maximum of five players to eight men per club. The Packers took advantage of this, continually bringing in players who proved more than capable to make the step up to the active 53-man roster when given the opportunity.
Due to a spate of injuries, the Packers found themselves having to look for reinforcements on their active roster throughout the season. While many teams are often sent scrambling to search the waiver wire and free agency when this occurs, the Packers were able to simply look to their practice squad and activate one of their own.
Over the course of the year, the Packers signed a player from their practice roster a team-record eight times, with most of the call-ups playing key roles at one time or another. Defensive tackle Colin Cole, wide receivers Kelvin Kight and Andrae Thurman, fullback Vonta Leach, tight ends Sean McHugh and Ben Steele, center Scott Wells, and running back Walter Williams all received a promotion during the season.
The personnel staff even recruited players from another team's practice squad, signing linebacker Steve Josue from the San Francisco 49ers late in the season. The former Green Bay draft choice played in the final four games of the year for the Packers, making five tackles on special teams and nine more on defense.
Steele provided perhaps the single most dramatic contribution of the former practice squad players. Late in the Packers' first meeting with the Minnesota Vikings, the tight end pounced on a loose ball with the score tied on a Green Bay kickoff return. Steele's fumble recovery set up Ryan Longwell's game-winning field goal and put the former Mesa State College player's name on the map in the storied Packer-Viking rivalry.
Steele played in 15 games on the season after an early promotion and was thrust into the number two tight end role following David Martin's season-ending knee injury. Steele finished the season with four receptions for 42 yards and wound up second on the team with 17 special teams tackles.
Wells, who was drafted late in the seventh round by the Packers in April, found himself on the practice squad at the start of the season but wasn't discouraged. The center from the University of Tennessee continued to work hard and earned a promotion when the team placed Mike Flanagan on injured reserve in early October.
Wells saw action in five games on the season and performed well when called on to start twice in December after Grey Ruegamer suffered a sprained ankle.
Cole was called upon late in the season to fill a spot in the defensive tackle rotation when James Lee's injured knee landed him on I.R. The 6-foot-2, 320-pound former Iowa Hawkeye made a good showing as Grady Jackson's backup at the nose tackle position, making seven tackles in three games and found himself in the starting lineup in the regular season finale at Chicago.
Kight's stay on the active roster wasn't altogether lengthy. The former University of Florida standout played in one game, featuring on special teams and saw action in four-receiver sets in the Week 6 win at Detroit. The wide receiver found himself on the practice squad injured list late in the season.
Thurman was activated for the final two games of the season after Robert Ferguson's injury and caught two passes for 12 yards. The rookie from Southern Oregon also returned kickoffs, averaging 19.7 yards on three runbacks.
Active for the final six games of the season, Leach proved to be another effective call-up, making four tackles on special teams and also seeing limited time as the lead blocker in the backfield.
Walter Williams had his run on the active roster cut short due to injury. One day after being promoted to the 53-man squad, Williams saw significant playing time at Houston after Ahman Green was knocked out of the game. The former Grambling State ball-carrier ran for 42 yards on six carries before being sidelined for the season himself due to an ankle injury.
Each of these players at one point or another helped the Green Bay Packers get the job done to win their third consecutive NFC North Division title. Rest assured that the personnel department is already hard at work scouring the football world for the little-known players that will make an impact in 2005.