The Packerscreed, by David Benjamin
The Ballad of the Underdog
“Since Ted Thompson was hired as GM, an undrafted rookie has made the 53 every year. OL seems like one of the better possibilities for that to happen this season.”
— Ryan Wood, PackersNews
MADISON, Wis. — In its early days, the NFL was a league full of barnstormers. If the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Cardinals, Decatur Staleys and Minneapolis Red Jackets wanted to compete for the league title, they had to travel east on a six- or seven-week trek and play the majority of their schedule while holing up in fleabag hotels.
For example, the 1929 NFL champions from Green Bay started the season with five wins at home, then faced eight straight games that stretched from Chicago to New York. In eight days between 24 November and the first of December, the Packers played three times, beating the New York Giants, 20-6, fighting to a scoreless tie with the Frankford Yellow Jackets, and then flattening the Providence Steam Roller, 25-0.
The next season was little different. The Packers left home around the 8th of November, played eight games from Chicago to Staten Island and didn’t stagger back into Brown County ’til ten days before Christmas.
Part of the reason that smalltown teams from outposts like Hibbing, Racine and Pottsville died out was the weeks-long road trips they had to take to play against the big-city squads — the Bears, the Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles — who were rich enough to dictate other teams’s travel.
The Packers are the sole survivor of that Darwinian grind. To become the NFL’s oldest franchise, with more titles than any of the newcomers, they had to spend decades as the undermanned underdog from way out west, hopping from city to city to play front of hostile crowds, often with only three days rest between games.
Even in the glory days of Vince Lombardi and the revival that began with Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, the Packers have never lost their underdog attitude. Green Bay remains, after all, the smallest town in professional sports, where fans bear the dubious nickname of Cheeseheads. It’s hard to be uppity. It’s easy to keep that chip glued to your shoulder.
So, it’s only appropriate that Green Bay, especially under Packers general manager Ted Thompson, has become a mecca for the league’s ultimate underdogs, the undrafted slobs who sign chintzy free-agent contracts in the days after the Draft. Past Packer UDFA Cinderellas include starters like Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Mason Crosby, special-teams stalwarts like Jarrett Bush and Jeff Janis, and fan favorites like Spencer Havner and John Kuhn.
This underdog tradition leads me to wonder: “Who’s it gonna be this year?”
My sentimental favorites to rise from obscurity, make it through training camp and land on the roster are Cody Heiman, the remarkably agile linebacker from Washburn whose rural Kansas high school recently closed down because of a shortage of students, and Montay Crockett, the greased lightning receiver from Georgia Southern who plays every game in tribute to his mom, Mary, who died of stomach cancer two years ago.
But if I’m making a realistic prediction, I think the likeliest group of undrafted free agents to get through the gauntlet in 2017 are the big studs competing for backup positions at guard and center. In the last year, Thompson has let go two Pro Bowl guards, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, and a valued backup, JC Tretter, who plays every OL position. With these three big absences, opportunities abound for a promising crop of UDFAs that includes holdovers Lucas Patrick (Duke), Justin McCray (Central Florida) and center Jacob Flores (Dartmouth).
Among the novices competing for roster spots behind starting guards Lane Taylor and Jahri Evans, and center Corey Linsley, is Thomas Evans (6-3, 305), who might be the strongest rookie in the NFL. He broke all the weightlifting records at Richmond University. He bench-pressed 525 pounds — picture a guy holding up six ballerinas who are each holding a watermelon — and set a three-lift record of 1,575 pounds. A chronic NFL problem is incoming linemen who didn’t do enough lifting in college. They need a year or two of weight training before they can hold their own on the field on every play. Evans probably won’t have that problem.
Geoff Gray (6-5, 215), from the University of Manitoba, was projected as top-ten choice in the Canadian Football League draft, and he’ll end up in the CFL if the Packers cut him. Thompson had Gray on his radar last season, worked him out in Green Bay and signed him almost instantly after the NFL Draft. The consensus in the Packers organization is that Gray would have been drafted if he had played college ball in the U.S. His measurables, especially his speed off the snap, compare well with most drafted players, and he has that underdog humility that the Packers cultivate.
Adam Pankey (6-5, 313), from West Virginia, a favorite Thompson source for linemen, has the versatility the Packers love. He has played both tackle and guard on both sides of the line. If he can unstiffen a little and proves to be coachable, he might make the cut.
Finally, Christian Schneider is a big (6-6, 305), athletic guard from California-Davis, the best agricultural college west of Wisconsin. If being a farmboy (like Jordy Nelson) is a ticket to the Packers roster, Schneider’s a lock.
Among the rookies on the line, either Evans or Gray, I think, is sure to make the team and possibly surpass the Packers only drafted guard, Kofi Amechia (6-4, 304), from South Florida. But don’t count out Pankey and Schneider (or Patrick, McCray and Flores). This is a pretty talented bunch of underdogs and there are always surprises.