Green Bay Packers Greatest Undrafted Free Agent Finds

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Throughout the Green Bay Packers storied history, their GMs and scouting departments have worked endlessly to find those undrafted hidden gems that other teams may have missed. They yearn for players that can make the roster at an inexpensive cost and contribute to the team. You might call that the ultimate value proposition among NFL GMs.

As the Green Bay Packers’  2010 rookie camp has come to an end, 25 NFL dreams have been shattered for now. At the same time, 3 more tryout invitees were signed to contracts after the weekend of workouts, bringing to 14 the number of undrafted free agents (UDFAs) that will be given a chance at NFL fame and fortune with the Packers.

The Packers roster in 2009 included four major contributors that were not selected in the NFL draft: Cullen Jenkins, Atari Bigby, Tramon Williams and Ryan Grant. In addition, other UDFAs on the roster were Spencer Havner, John Kuhn, Jarret Bush, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Josh Bell, Bret Goode and late season practice squad signee Cyril Obiozor.

There is little doubt that Ted Thompson and his scouts work very hard at looking for undrafted gems. Employing less expensive UDFAs is just one way he has been able to keep the Packer’s salary structure and overall expenditures at manageable levels. It’s too early to say if he has hit the jackpot with any of them (perhaps Ryan Grant could be that guy), but overall, I think he’s done a very good job in this department.

Which got me thinking about other UDFAs in Packers history. How successful have the Packers been historically at finding high-quality UDFAs? Well, this calls for a top-10 list, I thought to myself. So I started doing the research, checking every draft year since 1960.

With one notable exception, the results were rather underwhelming. In fact, to come up with a decent top-10 list, I’d probably have to use the four current roster contributors mentioned above (Jenkins, Bigby, Williams, Grant). Personally, whenever compiling a “greatest” list, I never like to include players that haven’t had at least five years as a starter. So, taking all of these factors into account, I decided to pare this down to a top five, which then makes for a tougher decision on the last spots and hopefully some debate about them.

I present to you my selections for the five greatest Packer UDFAs since 1960:


Honorable Mention:

A few players that were in the discussion for the last spot,  but didn’t quite make it:

Ryan Longwell – Certainly a nice career with the Packers, but I couldn’t live with myself if I included a field goal kicker here. Especially one that now kicks for the Vikings.

Ed West – Eleven years with the Packers, 14years total in the NFL, West was a steady, if unspectacular player. A 14 year NFL career for an UDFA is nothing to sneeze at.  Longevity points…


5) George Koonce
ILB, 6’1″, 245lbs., 8 seasons in Green Bay, 1992-1999
112 games, 433 tackles, 122 assists, 7.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, 6 fumble recoveries

Out of East Carolina College, George Koonce was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Atlanta Falcons after the 1991 NFL Draft. He was in the Falcon’s camp with a brash second round pick named Brett Favre, but was cut during the preseason. He played in the WFL the following spring and along with Favre, was brought to Green Bay by Ron Wolf for the 1992 Season

Koonce won a starting job during his first season with the Packers and never looked back. He started all but 10 of the 112 games he played in as a Packer, and his penchant for ferocious hits made him a fan favorite. Koonce, along with Reggie White, led a defensive resurgence for the Packers; a big reason the Packers made it to two Super Bowls in the Nineties.

While Koonce deserves some consideration for the Packer Hall of Fame, he just doesn’t have the stats to justify inclusion. Nobody, however,  can argue over the enjoyment Koonce brought to Packer fans when he would unleash a crushing hit  on a running back.


4) Mark Murphy
SS, 6’2″, 200lbs., 11 seasons in Green Bay, 1980-1991 (missed 1986 season due to injury)
147 games, 687 tackles, 239 assists, 11 sacks, 20 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries

Out of tiny West Liberty State, Murphy came to the Packers as a free agent in 1980. He was primarily Johnnie Gray’s backup for three seasons before becoming the starter in year four after Gray retired. Murphy would continue as the starting strong safety for 8 years, serving as one of the few bright spots on some pretty mediocre Packers defenses in the 1980s.

Easy to spot with with his helmet off, the bald, shiny-headed Murphy was also easy to find on the field – just follow the ball. For a safety to have 687 unassisted tackles in basically 8 years of playing, it shows both how active he was and also how weak the Packers defense was in front of him. Murphy would lead the Packers in tackles 3 different seasons and is fifth all-time in career tackles for the Packers.

Murphy was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1998. Ironically, his profile on the HOF web page mistakenly describes him as a 10th round draft pick, when in fact, he was never drafted.


3) Johnnie Gray
FS-SS, 5’11”, 185lbs, 9 seasons in Green Bay, 1975-1983
124 games, 771 tackles, 230 assists, 22 interceptions, 20 fumble recoveries, 85 punt returns, 21 kickoff returns

Out of Cal State – Fullerton, the undersized Johnnie Gray was overlooked in the 1975 draft. Fortunately, the Packers signed Gray as an undrafted free agent and found their starting safety for the next nine seasons. Gray played at the free safety position for six years, before switching to strong safety for his final three seasons.

Gray manned the Packers secondary during that black hole in the Packers defensive history we all like to forget; the 1970s and 1980s. Much like Mark Murphy, who took over the SS job when Gray retired, Johnnie Gray had to be everywhere on the field. Gray had three seasons with over 100 total tackles, and much to my surprise, is still second on the all-time Packers career tackles list. Only John Anderson has more tackles as a Packer than Johnnie Gray.

While Gray made his mark with his tackling prowess, he also contributed in many other ways. Gray recovered 20 fumbles as a Packer, good enough for second place on the Packers all-time list, tied with Ray Nitschke and only one less than Willie Davis. He also finished his Packer career with 22 interceptions, 85 punt returns and 21 kickoff returns.

Gray was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1994.


2) Paul Coffman
TE, 6’3″, 222lbs, 8 seasons in Green Bay, 1978-1985
124 games, 322 catches, 39 TDs, 4223 Yds,

Out of Kansas State University, Paul Coffman was not drafted or even pursued by any NFL team. When a Packers assistant coach came to Kansas State to work out one of his teammates, Coffman decided to ask for a tryout with the Packers. Coffman’s request was granted, and he surprised absolutely everyone by making the team.

Although he sat the bench as a rookie, Coffman exploded onto the NFL scene his second season, starting all 16 games and catching 56 passes, breaking the Packers’ record previously held by Ron Kramer. Coffman would go on to catch 322 passes and score 39 touchdowns for the Packers, while averaging an outstanding 13.1 yards per catch.

Over his seven prime years with the Packers, Coffman averaged 46 catches per year. He was known for his precise routes, great hands, and ability to make catches with defenders draped all over him. He worked hard on his blocking, and with the help of his coaches, also developed into one of the better blocking tight ends in the league.

Paul Coffman is a three-time Pro Bowler and in 1994 was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.


1) Willie Wood

FS, 5’10”, 180lbs, 12 seasons in Green Bay, 1960-1971
166 games, 48 interceptions, 16 fumble recoveries, 187 punt returns, 20 kickoff returns

Being a 5’10” African American quarterback, known more for running the ball in the 1950s, did not exactly put you very high on any NFL team’s prospect list. Not surprisingly, Wood was ignored in the NFL draft and his phone wasn’t ringing after the draft, either.

Wood embarked on a letter-writing campaign, but only one NFL GM responded; Vince Lombardi. Lombardi agreed to to give Wood a chance at defensive back, and it was a gambled that payed off one hundred times over.

Although he barely made the team, and mostly sat the bench while he learned a new position, by the start of his second season, he was a starter and would stay there for eleven seasons. Wood would go on to be one of the best defensive backs the game has ever known, with his athletic ability helping him to excel in all aspects of play. Pass coverage, tackling, interceptions, returning punts, Wood could do it all at a high level.

Willie Wood was an eight-time Pro Bowler and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. Wood is one of only thirteen  undrafted players to have their busts in the Hall of Fame:

1946 Frank Gatski G Cleveland Browns (AAFC)
1946 Lou Groza T-K Cleveland Browns (AAFC)
1946 Marion Motley FB Cleveland Browns (AAFC)
1946 Bill Willis MG Cleveland Browns (AAFC)
1948 Joe Perry FB San Francisco 49ers (AAFC)
1948 Emlen Tunnell DB New York Giants
1952 Dick “Night Train” Lane DB Los Angeles Rams
1960 Willie Wood DB Green Bay Packers
1963 Willie Brown DB Houston Oilers (Cut during training camp by Oilers and then signed by Denver Broncos.)
1966 Emmitt Thomas DB Kansas City Chiefs
1967 Larry Little G San Diego Chargers
1970 Jim Langer C Cleveland Browns (Cut by Browns during training camp and then signed by Miami Dolphins.)
1984 Warren Moon QB Houston Oilers
1990 John Randle DT Minnesota Vikings

Unfortunately, Willie Wood is in very poor health; yet another example of an old-tme player paying the price for the savagery of the game. I discovered this while researching this piece when I came across a recent aritcle about Wood by Martin Hendricks of JSOnline.com. A highly recommended read.


Summary:

I started out talking about the chances of finding that hidden gem of an UDFA. Looking at the Packers history in this department illustrates how unlikely that happenstance really is. In the last 50 years, the Packers have found a few nice shiny rocks, but only one true gem. And I have a feeling most NFL franchises would be more than happy with those results.

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You can  follow Jersey Al on Facebook and Twitter . Visit Jersey Al’s Packers Blog for more in-depth Packers commentary.

Jersey Al Bracco is the Green Bay Packers Draft Analyst for Drafttek.com.

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Jersey Al Bracco is the founder and editor of AllGreenBayPackers.com, and the co-founder of Packers Talk Radio Network. He can be heard as one of the Co-Hosts on Cheesehead Radio and is the Green Bay Packers Draft Analyst for Drafttek.com.

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  • Ron LC

    There can only be one #1 and Willie Wood is the only one to fit in that spot. Maybe the best FA signing ever, by anyone.

    • PackersRS

      Could make a very strong argument for Reggie White…

      • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

        After his 2 years in the USFL, White was selected in the 1st round (4th player overall) in the 1984 supplemental draft by Philadelphia Eagles. So, he was not an “undrafted” player.

        • PackersRS

          But Ron didn’t talk about UFAs. He said FAs…

          • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

            But the article is about undrafted free agents, so that’s what I’m responding to.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      Ron, see my addition to the article above for the full list of UDFAs in the HOF…

      • Ron LC

        Thanks Al, that’s an interesting group of players. I’ll stick with Wood as my #1. Intersting to see Emlen “the Gremlin” Tunnel who came to GB with Lombardi to help stablize his D backfield and was WW’s mentor. When Dick Lane was with Detroit he was certainly one of the league’s top DB’s. Always feared him and I think Aderley patterned his style of play after Night Train.

  • Jeremey

    great read!

  • http://packerchatters.com MJ Kasprzak

    I would say one diamond, but Coffman was a three-time Pro-Bowler, and that’s still a gem of some kind (a pearl, perhaps?). (He also was the guy I imagined being when my brother—Lynn Dickey—was throwing to me in sandlots…trust me, you didn’t want to face us both!)
    Great piece, bro…and good to hear you give my boy some props!

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      I was a big Coffman fan too. If you remember my All-Time Packers Offense piece, I picked him as the all-time Greatest Packers TE.

  • Ruppert

    I make a motion to include Gilbert Brown with an asterisk. He was indeed drafted by the Vikings, but they cut him, and we picked him (and his gravedigger shovel) up off the unemployment line, which is pretty darn close to what you’re looking for here. Just a thought…

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      Motion denied – plaintiff does not meet the specific requirements.

  • Ryan

    Al, this write up is top notch, insightful and well done. You bring it every time I must say.

    Isn’t it interesting that Grant went undrafted and signed with the Giants, and yet Thompson ended up shoveling over a sixth round pick to NY for him? It turned out to be a great bargin, although I think it was more of a desperation move on Ted’s part- after Jackson went down and the cupboards were bare early in ’07 at RB. And do you think he really constitutes as a Packers’ UFA “find” since Ted didn’t really land him initially? Was Grant going to be on the G-men’s practice squad week one? Could Ted just as easily signed him then for nothing? I don’t know the answers but it’s intersting stuff…

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      Thanks, Ryan.

      Some good questions there. Running backs are popular targets at practice squad time, (as the Packers know – (Tyrell Sutton), so I wouldn’t think the Packers could have just swooped in and got him for free. A 6th round pick wasn’t much to guarantee they get him.

  • http://greenbaypackernation.com John Rehor

    Top notch as always Al (also liked the football card graphic-I think I actually had some of them). Goes to show that all the scouting will occasionally result in huge misses on draft day who become good to great players.

    Curious to get your thoughts on 3 current Packers who were undrafted FA’s: Cullen Jenkins, Atari Bigby(undrafted but signed by Miami) and Tramon Williams(undrafted but signed by Houston)

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      My gut reaction is to say Jenkins has been the best find of those 3, although he has been an up-and-down type player. Williams has probably been the most consistent, Bigby has arguably been the biggest contributor the last few years, bu nobody seems happy with him lately. A mixed bag…

  • Ron LC

    Al, Completely unrelated! LT arrested in relation to a rape of a 15 year old girl? Any truth to this?

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      All the local news outlets here a having a field day, quotes from the police chief, etc. Unfortunately, it looks to be accurate. I can ignore his other issues, but not this. Hopefully he is tried like any other citizen with no special treatment…

      • Ron LC

        Wow, just how stupid can one get? Apparently, steroids do have a degenerative affect on brain cells. Well, I guess this will make Tiger happy. Sad, really sad!

  • Wiscokid

    Al, your list is a good one as far as it goes. Whereas I understand that you are listing only “undrafted” free agents, I wonder what that list would look like if you consider anyone who was selected after the seventh round? Wouldn’t they have been undrafted under today’s draft format? Surely someone like Bart Starr would have made the cut? Conversely, Bigby may well have been drafted before the end of round seventeen.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      Well, there is just one flaw in that logic. In 1956, there were only 12 teams. So Bart Starr was actually the 204th player selected. In 2005, 7 rounds x 32 teams = 224 players. Pretty close to the same number of players.

      • Wiscokid

        Of course you are right about 1956 but in 1970 there were 28 teams selecting 442 players. By 1976 that number grew to 487. In 1977 the league dropped to 12 rounds but still drafted 337 players. Phil Epps wasn’t a bad player who was drafted with the 321st pick in 1982. Mark Cannon was the 294th pick in 1984. Maybe not a great pick but he hung in the league for seven years. Don Majkowski was pick number 255 in 1987. There are probably a few other that at least made the team before the draft was shortened to eight rounds in 1993.

  • http://www.packerranter.com Robert Greenfield

    Great Article, Al. Love the card inserts as well. I honestly had no idea Willie Wood was undrafted.

    • http://allgbp.com Jersey Al

      Thanks Robert – I thought the card pics lent a nice touch also…