GREEN BAY — As soon as the NFL Draft concludes, Ted Thompson and his personnel department immediately begin working the phones in search of the next undrafted gem.
The Packers general manager and his scouts scour the country in hopes of unearthing a few hungry, unsung prospects from hundreds of college free agents seeking employment.
It’s a vital part of the draft-and-develop process since many wind up playing significant roles in Green Bay. Sam Shields, Evan Smith and Lane Taylor all took their first step toward the starting lineup through this nail-biting process.
The Packers’ open-minded approach served them well in 2016. Seventeen former undrafted free agents combined for 3,657 offensive and defensive snaps during the regular season, an increase from 2,766 in 2015 and 3,290 in 2014.
Three players – Taylor, cornerback LaDarius Gunter and linebacker Joe Thomas – led their respective positions in snaps after taking the long road to the NFL.
While Taylor was slated to be the starter at left guard entering Week 1, nothing was guaranteed for either Gunter or Thomas. Both players had to earn their spot on the 53-man roster during training camp after serving as backups in 2015.
Gunter, a second-year player out of Miami (Fla.), aspired to just be active in every game this year after playing in only nine of 18 contests (including playoffs) during his rookie season.
Playing time wasn’t an issue in 2016. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound cornerback was thrown into the fire after Shields sustained a concussion in the Packers’ season-opener against Jacksonville that ultimately ended his season.
Gunter routinely matched the opponent’s top receiver with Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins also battling injury. He led Green Bay’s cornerbacks with 860 snaps, two forced fumbles and 12 pass deflections in 16 games with 15 starts.
“Gunt’s one of those guys who’s going to be in the league for a long time because he has long arms, can get his hands on people and he’s strong,” said Packers defensive back Micah Hyde in December.
“He doesn’t talk very much. He just goes out there and plays. That’s why a lot of guys in the locker room like to play with him. … He goes out there, he competes. He’s been on a lot of good receivers this year. I can’t say enough about them.”
Thomas added 10 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame last summer to help his bid at making the Packers’ 53-man roster for the first time in three summers in Green Bay.
The former South Carolina State standout succeeded and started the year like he ended 2015 as the coverage linebacker in the dime sub-package.
However, injuries to Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez presented Thomas with an opportunity to show he could play every down in all 16 regular-season games with seven starts.
Thomas led all Packers’ linebackers with 632 snaps, which was important for a defense that entered the regular season with only three natural inside linebackers on the active roster.
In the end, Thomas nearly tripled his tackles from 26 to 70 and picked off his first NFL pass during the Packers’ 27-23 win over the Jaguars in Week 1.
“I think you're just watching another young player take a step,” said Head Coach Mike McCarthy last month. “Joe has probably taken two steps this year.”
It wasn’t only established veterans who made an impact from the undrafted ranks. Several rookies, including receiver Geronimo Allison and Kentrell Brice, saw action down the stretch on both sides of the ball.
Allison caught 12 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games following an October call-up from the practice squad. He added another five receptions for 65 yards during the Packers’ postseason run.
Brice was seen as one of the most coveted members of the Packers’ undrafted rookie class after recording 210 tackles, five sacks, three interceptions and four forced fumbles in 49 games (33 starts) at Louisiana Tech.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound safety followed in the footsteps of another Bulldog alum, Tramon Williams, who started his NFL career as an undrafted free agent before developing into a Pro Bowl cornerback during his eight seasons with the Packers.
Brice spent all season as the understudy to Morgan Burnett at safety. Whenever Burnett moved to slot cornerback or inside linebacker in the dime sub-package, Brice was the one called upon to line up next to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on the back end.
A natural heavy hitter, Brice showed a lot of toughness during a rookie season that saw him register 26 tackles and a pass deflection in 258 defensive snaps.
“It’s things that I have inside me from how I grew up,” said Brice of his mentality. “It’s everything from going undrafted, all of it is combined into one. I just go out and play my game and let my passion play through me on the field.”
College free agency always has been a pivotal part of the Packers’ program. At least one undrafted rookie has made the 53-man roster in each of Thompson’s 12 seasons in Green Bay.
As Thompson and his scouting department start putting this year’s draft board together, they’ll also be keeping a close eye on the prospects who could help them once the draft is over.