Former college free agents have combined for more than 1,200 offensive and defensive snaps through four games Wes Hodkiewicz
GREEN BAY - Lucas Patrick wasn't offered a single NFL contract after going undrafted out of Duke in 2016.
One year later, Robert Tonyan went undrafted as a tight end after previously playing quarterback and receiver at Indiana State.
Allen Lazard had power-five credentials when he came out in 2018, as an accomplished All-Big 12 receiver, but still had to prove he could play the position at the next level because he didn't fit some scouts' definition of an NFL wideout.
Tyler Lancaster, Krys Barnes, Chandon Sullivan, Raven Greene, Lane Taylor, and the list goes on and on of undrafted free agents and former practice-squad players who took the long road to success as members of the Packers' roster.
All the aforementioned have climbed the depth chart on their respective sides of the ball to contribute to Green Bay's best start in five years. Through four games, 16 former college free agents have combined for 1,238 offensive and defensive snaps, with Patrick (230), Lazard (188) and Tonyan (173) leading the way.
"The common traits are that they have a professionalism about them, that they're always working on their craft," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "That they have a humility about it, but kind of a resolute mindset that (the practice squad) is a temporary thing for them. And those are the guys who've made the plays all the time."
It's sometimes easy to forget Rodgers, now in the 16th season of an NFL career destined for Canton, Ohio, ran the Packers' scout team for three full years as the understudy to Brett Favre.
Over the years, Rodgers has watched undrafted hopefuls such as Tramon Williams, John Kuhn, Ryan Grant, Sam Shields and Jarrett Bush become Pro Bowlers...and Super Bowl champions.
Following in the footsteps of his predecessor Ted Thompson, Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst has continued to build on that legacy of unearthing hidden gems.
The current Packers roster offers a blend of undrafted players who entered the season as presumptive starters (Lazard, Sullivan and Tonyan) and those who have been thrust into prominent roles due to early-season injuries (Patrick, Lancaster and Barnes).
Patrick has perhaps taken the unlikeliest path of all to prominence. Since coming to Green Bay on a tryout, Patrick spent a season on the practice squad and three years as a reserve interior lineman before graduating to a starting role this year.
After opening the season at left guard, Patrick has started the last three games at right guard following the season-ending knee injury Taylor suffered in Minnesota. His four starts have already tied his previous career high.
"Effort, that's the first thing that came off," said left tackle David Bakhtiari of Patrick. "He consistently would show effort, and I think that's huge. That's something that sounds so easy to teach, but it's so hard to get out of each and every player, and he showed that every day.
"Just his progression, how much he has grown since he's been here, in '16, fundamentally, his confidence in himself."
This year, the practice squad has taken on added importance due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to expand practice squads to 16 players and relaxed rules that previously required practice-squad players to sign to the active 53-man roster in order to be eligible to play.
With the process mirroring more of a MLB minor-league system, each practice-squad player is now eligible to be elevated twice during the season before he must be signed to the active roster. To date, only tight end John Lovett (now on the 53) and veteran defensive lineman Billy Winn have exercised both of their options.
Three practice-squad players - defensive lineman Willington Previlon, and linebackers De'Jon Harris and Tipa Galeai - also have been called up for gameday appearances, while receivers Darrius Shepherd and Reggie Begelton were signed to the 53.
"That even allows for greater opportunities for those guys," Rodgers said. "And just the facts in this league, we're going to need guys from our practice squad to play important roles for us as we move forward - and we've already seen it with guys like Barnes coming off and making a bunch of plays in Week 1 and Billy Winn being a vet on there and playing for us for a few weeks."
It's an uphill battle for undrafted free agents to gain traction in the NFL, but those who have succeeded attach themselves to established veterans. Sullivan stayed close to Williams, Tonyan listened intently to Marcedes Lewis, and Lazard and Shepherd often bounce ideas off Davante Adams.
So it comes as no surprise when those individuals find ways to stand out once their opportunity arrives.
"I think that the thing (they) all did was they really got in the hip pocket of a veteran player in that position group and watched how they went about practice and started to practice like a professional - like an active 53 guy," Rodgers said.
"There's kind of a listen-first, speak-second mindset that I think is appreciated by the veteran players on the team. You kind of earn your dues and don't act like you've arrived (or) you're on scholarship."
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