INDIANAPOLIS — In midst of all the calamity last week at the NFL Scouting Combine, Ty Montgomery paused to reflect on his own experience two years ago.
It’s a valid question. The Packers’ receiver-turned-running back was praised for his physical skill set coming out of Stanford in 2014, but draft pundits questioned how it would translate to the NFL.
Everything about his game was put under the microscope, including what position he should play in the pros. Was he a receiver? Was he a running back? Did it even matter?
In the end, the Packers saw a football player and used their third-round pick (90th overall) to bring in the 6-foot, 221-pound playmaker.
After an ankle injury ended his rookie season prematurely, Montgomery paid the Packers back for their investment when he successfully made an in-season switch to the backfield after injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks.
Montgomery became one of the offense’s top playmakers in his nine starts (including playoffs) in 2016, recording 735 total yards with five rushing touchdowns during that stretch.
He’s yet another example of how the boundaries have shifted for NFL players. Prospects who were once overlooked require closer examination, as the notion of a prototypical player continues to expand.
Twenty years ago, many general managers and personnel directors followed fairly strict guidelines for what to look for in a prospect – height of a quarterback, 40 time for a cornerback, and how many bench reps a running back could put up.
Those metrics still carry water in the pre-draft process, but teams are doing their research now more than ever before on unheralded players who might not conveniently fit into the blueprint for a particular position.
“There’s prototypes for positions but they don’t all have to be the prototype,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. “There’s a lot of players in the league that are great rushers but are 6-2½ , 260, 265. But they all have the power, leverage, the get-off speed, being able to beat the guy around the corner.”
As the NFL evolves, the Packers have continued to adapt, beginning in 2011 when they drafted Randall Cobb with the final pick of the second round.
Cobb had everything you look for in a football player, but he fell down draft boards because of his size (5-10, 192 pounds) and concern about whether he could become a full-time receiver after being a jack-of-all-trades threat at Kentucky.
In only his second season, Cobb posted 80 receptions for 954 yards and eight touchdowns. Two years later, he made it to his first Pro Bowl with a career-high 91 catches for 1,287 yards and 12 TDs.
To maximize Cobb’s versatility, Head Coach Mike McCarthy also occasionally lined him up in the backfield where he’s amassed 335 yards on 50 carries (6.7 yards per attempt) during his six seasons in Green Bay.
“We knew when he came out of Kentucky, you have to make sure you give him opportunities to get the ball in his hands,” McCarthy said at the combine. “Anytime you’ve got a guy who has returner ability, a back, that’s a pain in the ass for a defense, just from an alignment standpoint. Just trying to take advantage of his talents.”
The expansion didn’t stop with Cobb, though his utilization helped lay the foundation for Montgomery. The philosophy also stretched over to the defense.
In 2012, the Packers took a chance on a sawed-off defensive lineman out of Iowa who many experts felt had a ceiling as a rotational rusher. Instead, Mike Daniels has blossomed into one of the league’s top all-around defensive tackles.
A year later, the Packers introduced the elephant linebacker to the defense. They’ve since converted Mike Neal, Julius Peppers and Datone Jones to a hybrid role, where they stand up outside on first and second down before rushing from the interior in obvious passing situations.
At the same time the Packers were broadening the job descriptions of their pass-rushers, they also altered the dynamics of their secondary with slot cornerback Micah Hyde learning safety, and safety Sean Richardson learning slot cornerback.
Hyde, who was lambasted by experts regarding his 40 time coming out of Iowa, was the embodiment of consistency during his four seasons in Green Bay, registering 227 tackles with eight interceptions and four sacks.
The Packers made perhaps their boldest move on defense this past year in playing seventh-year safety Morgan Burnett extensively near the line of scrimmage as an inside linebacker and slot cornerback to help defend against athletic tight ends.
The success of Arizona’s Deone Bucannon and Los Angeles’ Mark Barron has resulted in more teams testing safeties and larger cornerbacks as hybrid linebackers to counteract Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.
“Being able to have range and being able to really break down and cover longer receivers and tight ends is something that’s definitely been beneficial,” said UConn safety Obi Melifonwu, who’s considered one of the more intriguing defensive prospects at 6-4, 224 pounds.
“(With) guys like Rob Gronkowski, there’s definitely been a transformation with tight ends in the league and taller receivers, and I think I’m somebody who definitely can help a lot of teams.”
A new crop of NFL prospects will enter the league in two months with many dual-threat options such as Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, Ohio State running back-turned-receiver Curtis Samuel and Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers looking to show their college success can translate in the pro ranks.
With college pro days scattered throughout March, NFL personnel directors will all be asking themselves a similar question – what’s next?
“Sometimes you think about, ‘OK, where are we going? What is the NFL going to look like in, you know, 10, 15 years,” Seattle general manager John Schneider said.
“I think from a perimeter standpoint we are probably going to see a lot of the same things. But from an interior standpoint, I think things may change a little bit. I can’t tell you how, but if we are going to keep going in this direction, I mean, this is the talent pool that we are dealing with.
“There aren’t a lot of guys that are coming into this league that are like Larry Allen (or) a Nate Newton, just big. That’s kind of how we are evolving a little bit. You are seeing a quicker, maybe a little bit lighter type of dude.”