Rookie trio carries on Packers' undrafted legacy

Malik Heath, Brenton Cox Jr., and Emanuel Wilson earned their spot on 53

RB Emanuel Wilson, LB Brenton Cox Jr., WR Malik Heath

GREEN BAY – As much as Malik Heath tried to play it cool, the butterflies eventually wiggled their way to his stomach Monday morning.

Prior to that, the nerves of the Packers' undrafted rookie receiver were steady. Heath was happy with the training camp he put together in Green Bay and felt content with whatever the final results may be.

Amidst the agonizing wait to find out whether he'd made the Packers' 53-man roster, however, Heath started to see some of Green Bay's cuts trickle out on social media. He nervously stared at his phone, worried what news the next ring might bring.

On Tuesday, a call finally came from Heath's position coach, Jason Vrable, and the 6-foot-2, 213-pound receiver immediately braced for the worst.

"I'm over there just nervous, shaking," Heath said. "I'm thinking like he's calling to tell me to bring my iPad, playbook up there."

Far from it. No, Vrable was calling to congratulate Heath on being one of the three undrafted rookies who made the Packers' 53-man roster, along with Florida outside linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. and Fort Valley State running back Emanuel Wilson.

In four months, Heath rose from college free agent to starting with the No. 1 offense in last Saturday's preseason finale with the Seattle Seahawks. Despite competing with seven receivers drafted in the last 16 months, Heath still finished with a team-high 12 catches for 146 yards during the exhibition slate.

Vrable's congratulations were quickly followed by Heath making an emotional call to his mother and another to his son. Once things died down, Heath celebrated on Tuesday night as only a 23-year-old NFL receiver can.

He fired up "Madden."

"In my mind, I'm still like I'm dreaming or something. Because I'm actually on the team and I'm on the 53 and I'm on Madden and stuff like that," Heath said.

"I just played Madden last night and I'm throwing myself nothing but go balls. Like I'm still in the movie right now. I'm still dreaming right now. I can't wake up. That first game I'm gonna wake up, though, for sure. I'm still soaking everything in."

While the Packers' top preseason wideout anxiously awaited his fate, Wilson – the NFL's leading rusher in the preseason – quashed his pre-cutdown day jitters through meditation.

The 5-foot-11, 226-pound running back burst onto the scene this summer after injuries to rookie seventh-round pick Lew Nichols and Tyler Goodson. He racked up 111 yards and two touchdowns on just six carries in the Packers' preseason opener in Cincinnati.

His 80-yard touchdown run against the Bengals was the longest by a Packers running back in the preseason in more than 20 years. According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson led all NFL running backs with 11 forced missed tackles and five runs of 10 or more yards.

Wilson showed another element of his game, too, when in pass protection he picked up a stunt last Saturday against the Seahawks, allowing quarterback Sean Clifford to get off his throw without issue.

The Division II standout said he didn't find out he'd made the team until stopping by Lambeau Field on Tuesday, where Packers director of performance psychology, Dr. Chris Carr, was the first to congratulate him.

"It was very special for me," Wilson said. "Just because I talk to Dr. Carr … me and him have our one-on-one times and we just sit there and have deep conversations. I appreciate him telling me."

On the defensive side of the ball, Cox cracked the Packers' 53 at one of the most talented positions on the entire roster. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound edge rusher consistently applied pressure to opposing quarterbacks, though, and racked up three tackles, two passes defensed, and a quarterback hit in preseason action.

It was enough for General Manager Brian Gutekunst to retain Cox in a deep outside linebacker room that consists of veterans Rashan Gary, Preston Smith and Justin Hollins, rookie first-round pick Lukas Van Ness and the promising Kingsley Enagbare.

A former five-star recruit, Cox came to Green Bay this offseason looking for a clean slate after dismissals from Georgia and Florida, and that's exactly what he received.

"As soon as I walked in. Yeah, no lie was told," Cox said. "They definitely gave me a shot, left everything in the past, as it should've been. I appreciate Matt (LaFleur). I appreciate the organization for doing that."

Now, the regular-season work begins. In less than 10 days, the Packers travel to Chicago for the regular-season opener against the Bears. Once the opening whistle blows at Soldier Field, Green Bay officially will extend its streak to 19 consecutive years of at least one undrafted rookie making the Week 1 roster.

The streak, which includes more than 40 undrafted rookies, dates back to Ted Thompson's first year as Packers' general manager in 2005. For hungry rookies looking to earn their keep in the NFL, it's a dream scenario.

"The opportunity is real around here, for sure," Heath said. "I don't know about other organizations, but around here in Green Bay, they treat undrafted players just like they got drafted. Like the players and everyone say … draft don't mean nothing when you come in here (the locker room)."

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