Long odds didn't stop Jack Heflin, Chauncey Rivers

Undrafted free agents kept making plays en route to Packers’ roster

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LB Chauncey Rivers and DL Jack Heflin

GREEN BAY – Jack Heflin was awakened by the sound of his phone ringing Tuesday morning, prompting a pit to form in the stomach of the Packers' defensive lineman.

An incoming call is the last thing most undrafted rookies want to hear on cutdown day. It often can be an ominous precursor to that player being told he didn't make the team.

In Heflin's case, it was the opposite. On the other end of the phone was his defensive line coach, Jerry Montgomery, calling to inform Heflin that he'd made the Packers' roster.

"I started kind of shaking a little bit," recalled Heflin after practice on Wednesday. "I'm like, 'There's no way. Am I being pranked? Am I still dreaming?'

"But it was the greatest day of my life. If I get a phone call like that every single morning, I'd be pretty happy. If that'd be my alarm clock, that wouldn't be too bad."

There's perhaps no one more fitting than Heflin to extend the Packers' streak of 17 consecutive years having at least one undrafted rookie on their Week 1 roster.

A native of Prophetstown, Ill., the 6-foot-3, 304-pound defensive lineman didn't have one Division I scholarship offer coming out of high school. Heflin walked on at Northern Illinois, before earning a scholarship after his freshman year.

Heflin, who played his senior year at Iowa, faced long odds at cracking the Packers' roster. He even joked Wednesday about the nerves felt during OTAs, constantly wondering if he'd be released. 

Despite returning four veterans on the defensive line and using a fifth-round pick on Florida's T.J. Slaton, the Packers couldn't part with Heflin after a preseason in which the young defensive lineman posted nine tackles and a team-high three QB hits.

"He just kept making plays, quite honestly," General Manager Brian Gutekunst said. "I really liked his preparation and it showed in the games when he got out there and played, and he made plays. Finding big men later in the year is very hard to do, so letting those guys, exposing those guys wasn't something we were willing to do."

Joining Heflin as a former college free agent making the Packers' roster was linebacker Chauncey Rivers, who spent most of his rookie season on Baltimore's practice squad in 2020.

The 6-foot-2, 259-pound linebacker had high hopes for this upcoming season prior to being cut by the Ravens a week into training camp. The timing could not have been worse, since most NFL teams were set with their rosters and the 90 players they've been developing since May.

The Packers were in a tough spot, too, after losing Randy Ramsey to a season-ending ankle injury the day before Rivers was released. Looking for help at outside linebacker, the Packers claimed Rivers off waivers and quickly noticed the chip that had formed on the first-year linebacker's shoulder.

"My mindset was I already had a fire in me from getting cut, so I just came in ready to give my best effort," Rivers said. "Come in, earn a spot and show what I can do on the field."

Working closely with position coach Mike Smith, the 24-year-old Rivers quickly caught up on Green Bay's playbook. With Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith or Rashan Gary not playing in the preseason, there were plenty of in-game reps for him to put what he'd learned to the test.

It fed into Rivers having his best showing in a Packers uniform during last Saturday's preseason finale against Buffalo, where he registered two QB hits and sacked Bills All-Pro quarterback Josh Allen for a 10-yard loss.

"It was kind of a win-win situation for me," said Rivers of landing in Green Bay. "It was a better opportunity here to get on the field, a better opportunity to display my talent, and it was just a blessing to me."

Heflin and Rivers realize the work is far from over. Both may be counted on to produce as soon as next week's regular-season opener against the New Orleans Saints. As undrafted free agents, the margin for error remains thin.

Heflin did give himself one day to enjoy his achievement, though. While he tried to stay off his phone as best he could Tuesday, Heflin got emotional when he called his mother, Judy, to tell her that he made the team.

Last month, Heflin recounted a story to the Green Bay media corps about the time he told his mom he'd one day play at the University of Iowa. Now, after achieving that goal, he stands at the precipice of an NFL career.

"It was just surreal because it's always been a moment we talked about," Heflin said. "It's always just one of those things like, 'We'll cross that bridge when we get there.' Shoot, we're standing at the end of the bridge and we're like, 'It's time to cross it.' So, it was a great moment and I'll never forget it."

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