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Packers will never stop searching for hidden offseason gems

Green Bay has turned under-the-radar signings into All-Pros the past two years

LB Preston Smith, CBs Keisean Nixon and Rasul Douglas
LB Preston Smith, CBs Keisean Nixon and Rasul Douglas

GREEN BAY – The best signings don't always garner the biggest headlines.

For example, the Packers agreeing to terms with cornerback Keisean Nixon during the second wave of free agency was met with little fanfare last March.

A few weeks earlier, Las Vegas chose not to tender a restricted-free-agent contract offer to Nixon, making the fourth-year veteran unrestricted for the first time since he went undrafted out of South Carolina in 2019.

Today, Nixon is a first-team All-Pro who led the NFL with 1,009 yards on kickoff returns this past season. His 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Minnesota in Week 17 made Nixon the first Packers player to return a kickoff for a TD in more than a decade. It was also the third-longest kickoff return for a TD in team history.

The 5-foot-10, 200-pound cornerback is the latest in a series of under-the-radar acquisitions who made a big difference for the Packers since Brian Gutekunst was hired as general manager in 2018, joining the likes of linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, cornerback Rasul Douglas, and receiver Allen Lazard.

"Obviously the draft gets a lot of attention, free agency those few days gets a lot of attention, but for us, that's as important as anything," said Gutekunst of digging for veteran free agents. "Finding those role players that can come in, be versatile, play (special) teams, do different things for you at a high level, it's exceptionally important, and the way this league is, most of the time those guys if they come in and do a good job, you're going to have to replace those guys as well just because of the way the cap is. We have to be able to do that every year."

Gutekunst set the tone early in 2018 when he and his scouts scoured NFL practice squads in search of untapped talent to sign and stash on the roster as Green Bay turned its eye to the future. With a roster spot available after Aaron Jones was placed on injured reserve, the Packers signed Lazard off Jacksonville's practice squad with two weeks left in the regular season.

The 6-foot-5, 227-pound receiver has caught 169 passes for 2,236 yards and eight touchdowns in 57 regular-season games (40 starts) since then, while establishing himself as one of the league's best blocking receivers.

The Packers made perhaps their biggest signing ever off another team's practice squad last year when they signed Rasul Douglas away from Arizona. Douglas wound up leading the defense with five interceptions (two returned for a touchdown) in 12 games in 2021. After re-signing last March, Douglas had a career-high 85 tackles with four interceptions in 17 games (12 starts) this past season.

"It's never those things where like, hey, it just comes out of the blue one day," Gutekunst said. "We might be tracking a guy for a year and a half, and liking him and then all of a sudden the opportunity comes where the price and everything makes sense, or he gets released and we claim him, or we have an opportunity because of roster numbers to go steal a guy from the practice squad.

"Allen Lazard is a perfect example, right? We were out of it in 2018 so we started talking, who's the best practice squad guys out there, let's go get 'em."

Campbell was already an established starter in the NFL when the Packers agreed to terms with him in June 2021 but the former fourth-round pick took his game to another level in the heart of Green Bay's defense. The seventh-year veteran became the first Green Bay inside linebacker to earn AP first-team All-Pro honors since Ray Nitschke (1966) after racking up a career-high 145 tackles in 2021. He was the only player in the league with 120-plus tackles and multiple INTs (two), sacks (two) and forced fumbles (two).

As much as Campbell's addition marked a turning point for the Packers' defense, Nixon's infusion on special teams was a key part of the change in culture on the unit under first-year coordinator Rich Bisaccia.

Nixon parlayed strong performances on the Packers' coverage teams into more and more opportunities as the season progressed, eventually settling in as Green Bay's primary kickoff and punt returner.

While it was the first time Nixon returned on a full-time basis since junior college, it sure didn't look like it. He led the NFL in kickoff returns of 50-plus yards (five, no other player with more than two) and 30-plus yards (11), the most by a Packer in both categories since 2000. What's more, Nixon added 17 tackles, an interception and forced fumble as a slot cornerback on defense, and 11 punt returns for 140 yards (12.7 yards per return). Predictably, he didn't take a single fair catch.

Coincidentally, Nixon and Campbell were both named first-team All-Pro following their first seasons in Green Bay.

"(I'm) really proud of the way he responded to the opportunities given to him, not only in the (special) teams stuff but in defense, as well," Gutekunst said. "(We) knew he was a good teams player, good gunner, good cover guy. Obviously, none of us knew what kind of returner was gonna come out of that and that was a pleasant surprise."

True to form, the Packers continued to leave no stone unturned in 2022. Like the signing of Lazard in 2018, the Packers added rookie receiver Bo Melton from Seattle's practice squad during Week 17. He didn't play the final two games of the regular season but was signed to a futures contract last week.

As the Packers turn their attention to 2023, Gutekunst and his front office will again be in search of hidden gems to complete the roster.

"That's a big part of what we do, and (the pro personnel) guys do a fantastic job," Gutekunst said. "They're constantly bringing me guys to look at and say, 'Hey, here's an opportunity, here's an opportunity, here's an opportunity.' The amount of times and hours those guys put in, it's a little bit unheralded at times, but they do a great job."