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College free agency pays dividends for Packers

22 undrafted rookies have made season-opening roster since 2010


GREEN BAY – Soon after the 253rd selection of the NFL Draft is announced Saturday night in Philadelphia, the process restarts for Ted Thompson and his personnel department.

The Packers' general manager and his scouts will begin making calls to college free agents across the country, trying to find the next Sam Shields, Lane Taylor or LaDarius Gunter.

It's an admittedly chaotic time with NFL teams looking to unearth a possible gem and hundreds of players looking for the right place to chase their NFL dream.

It's also been a staple of the Packers' draft-and-develop system since Thompson took over in 2005.

"We very much push the notion if you come here, historically speaking, you'll have a pretty good chance of making the team, making a practice squad, and making something that you can ply your trade," said Thompson at his annual pre-draft news conference last week.

Of all the phone calls placed, it's almost a guarantee a few hopefuls will earn a spot on the 53-man roster. At least one undrafted rookie has made the Week 1 roster in each of Thompson's 12 years at the helm and at least two for the past seven.

The Packers rank third in NFL games played by undrafted rookies (1,434) during that stretch, with 352 combined starts. The 22 players who have made their initial 53-man roster since 2010 is also the third-most in the NFL over that span.

This past year was especially productive for the Packers, who saw four college free agents emerge from training camp on the roster and another eight land on the team's practice squad.

The practice squad has been a popular avenue for in-season roster additions in recent years. One midseason call-up in 2016, former Illinois receiver Geronimo Allison, caught 17 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns following his October promotion.

Overall, 17 former undrafted free agents combined for 3,654 offensive and defensive snaps during the regular season last year, an increase from 2,766 in 2015 and 3,290 in 2014. Those players also contributed another 1,841 snaps on special teams.

Over the past three years, homegrown undrafted free agents have combined for 93 total starts with three former college free agents – Taylor, Gunter and linebacker Joe Thomas – leading their respective positions in snaps this past year.

"We spend a lot of time on it and we make no bones about it," Thompson said. "We're active in the preparation part of it and we're active in trying to execute it once the draft is over with. I don't know whether to say it's more important than anything else, but you can look at our roster and see we've gotten players that way."

With teams guaranteed only seven picks per year, the Packers place a premium on the ability to develop under-the-radar prospects into future starters and role players.

Shields is perhaps the team's greatest success story. A converted receiver from Miami (Fla.), the Pro Bowl corner played a pivotal role in the Packers' secondary during their Super Bowl XLV championship run.

During his seven seasons, Shields started 70 of the 91 games he played in (including playoffs). He recorded 245 tackles, 66 passes defensed and 18 interceptions in the regular season, while his five postseason picks are a franchise record.

Gunter, another undrafted find from Miami, has followed in Shields' footsteps, starting 15 regular-season games in 2016 to lead all Green Bay cornerbacks with 54 tackles, 12 deflections and two forced fumbles.

The Packers' offensive line has reaped similar rewards over the years, with Evan Smith starting 25 games from 2011-13, Don Barclay starting 24 from 2012-16, and Taylor starting 18 over the last two years.

Among the 29 rookie free agents who have made the opening roster since 2005 are recent re-signees Barclay and fourth-year linebacker Jayrone Elliott.

Both players returned to Green Bay this offseason with the opportunity to earn more prominent roles at their respective positions once training camp begins at the end of July.

"The opportunity is there," said Elliott, who's also one of the leaders on special teams. "I'm glad I get to learn from guys like Nick Perry and Clay Matthews for another year. I'm ready to compete with those guys and help the team any way I can."

Once all the dust settles this weekend, the Packers could then welcome upwards of two dozen college free agents to Lambeau Field, where they'll hope to earn a roster spot.

If recent history is any indication, there's a good probability a few players will do precisely that this summer.

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