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2019 UDFA Prospectus: Which undrafted free agents are best positioned to stick with the Packers?

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Which UDFAs could earn a spot on the Packers’ 53-man roster or practice squad in 2019?

NCAA Football: UCLA at Oklahoma Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

While all NFL teams enjoy some modicum of success with undrafted free agents, few franchises consistently retain as many as the Green Bay Packers. If history provides any indication, one or more prospects that didn’t hear their name called during the draft will find themselves with a job on Green Bay’s 53-man roster or practice squad.

Projecting which undrafted players ultimately earn that status presents a more challenging task, however. Multiple factors come into play when evaluating UDFAs and their path to success. Certainly, a prospect must possess talent, but if he finds himself buried too far down the depth chart, the coaching staff might not provide him with enough opportunities to demonstrate his skill set.

Last year’s attempt to highlight the best-positioned undrafted free agents nailed two keepers: Eastern Kentucky quarterback Tim Boyle and Richmond offensive lineman Alex Light. Both performed so well during training camp and the preseason that the Packers felt compelled to retain them on their initial 53-man roster. Entering their second seasons and under a coaching staff, Boyle and Light should have opportunities to challenge for larger roles on the team.

2018 marked the fourth time in five attempts Acme Packing Company’s annual UDFA prospectus produced at least one prospect who landed on the Packers’ 53-man roster or practice squad. You can view every prospectus since 2013 here.

The lone attempt without a hit came in 2017, though that comes with a sizable asterisk. That prospectus picked two players the Packers hoped to sneak onto the practice squad, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill and Manitoba O-lineman Geoff Gray. Hill wound up on the New Orleans Saints as a waiver claim and has become a regularly featured piece of their offense. Gray chose to sign with the New York Jets’ practice squad instead of Green Bay’s offer.

So with the qualifiers out of the way, here are the undrafted free agents best positioned to stick around in 2019.

Curtis Bolton, ILB, Oklahoma

After the secondary, no part of the Packers defense entered the draft with a larger hole than the linebacking corps. The unit has lacked a quality running mate for starter Blake Martinez, Green Bay’s top off-ball linebacker over the past few seasons. Jake Ryan filled that role for multiple seasons but never amounted to more than a solid run defender. Oren Burks, a 2018 third-round selection, has the physical tools to develop into a difference maker, but he effectively redshirted as a rookie and needs to prove his mettle earning a larger role. The rest of the linebacker depth chart includes a pair of former undrafted free agents, James Crawford and Brady Sheldon.

That lack of competition almost certainly attracted Curtis Bolton to the Packers. An off-ball linebacker out of Oklahoma, Bolton offers top-shelf athleticism for the position. He produced a 4.53 second 40-yard dash, 7.18 second 3-cone, 38-inch vertical, 119-inch broad jump, and 4.36 second short shuttle at Oklahoma’s pro day. Several of those measurements would have ranked near the top of his position group at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Though relegated to backup duty and special teams until his senior season, Bolton broke out in 2018, earning recognition as an All-Big 12 honorable mention. Bolton played stout run defense despite his relatively meager size for a linebacker (6-foot, 228 pounds). The Oklahoma coaches trusted Bolton enough to line him up at other positions, including 79 snaps as a defensive lineman and 82 spans as a slot corner.

Still, Bolton performed best as a pass rusher. In 2018, he registered a team-best 32 total pressures and a pressure rate of 33.7 percent, according to Pro Football Focus. While he won’t maintain that production in the NFL, his ability to pester the quarterback could endear him to Pettine.

Bolton’s path to a spot on the Packers’ roster or practice squad looks fairly straightforward. With only Martinez and Burks locks to make the 53, Bolton might only need to unseat Crawford or seventh-round pick Ty Summers. Green Bay has rostered more than four off-ball linebackers in the past (most recently in 2018), giving Bolton a chance to stick around even if he doesn’t beat out those currently ahead of him.

Yosh Nijman, OL, Virginia Tech

Fielding a team with five competent offensive linemen has become a Herculean task for NFL teams in recent years. Despite investing significant money and draft capital into the position group, many offenses still take the field with significant holes up front. As such, general managers look high and low for anyone who might eventually develop into an NFL-caliber O-lineman.

The Packers have done a better job than most in this department. Just on the current roster, 2010 first-round pick Bryan Bulaga has spent most of his career as a quality starter at right tackle with former Day 3 selection David Bakhtiari developing into a first-team All-Pro left tackle to bookend the line. Along the interior, fellow late-round pick Corey Linsley has become Aaron Rodgers’ longest-serving center and a critical part of the unit. The team has also turned former undrafted free agent Lane Taylor into a multiyear starter. Those four players return to Green Bay in 2019 to anchor the offensive line.

Still, change will come to the group in the near future. Bulaga enters the final year of his contract and battled the injury bug throughout his decade in the league. At guard, Taylor just completed the worst season of his career as a starter and might lack the mobility to consistently execute new head coach Matt LaFleur’s outside-zone heavy scheme. Meanwhile, the Packers signed Billy Turner during the initial wave of free agency and drafted Mississippi State’s Elgton Jenkins in the second round, further emphasizing the front office’s desire for more athletic offensive linemen on the roster.

While the schematic shift could spell the end of the old-school maulers in Green Bay, it could open the door for an uber-athlete like undrafted offensive lineman Yosh Nijman. A hulking 6-foot-7, 324-pound tackle out of Virginia Tech, Nijman lit up the pre-draft process with a stellar 40-yard dash (4.83 seconds), 3-cone drill (7.3 seconds), short shuttle (4.5 seconds), vertical leap (30.5 inches), and broad jump (114 inches). Nijman also offers three years of starting experience, making 22 starts at left tackle and another 10 on the right.

But while Nijman appears to have plenty of upside, injuries have hurt his development. He missed five games in 2017 with a right-leg injury and another two this past season with MCL trouble. Nijman also hasn’t developed ideal blocking habits, often throwing himself off balance with awkward pass sets. He will have to improve his technique in short order to stick in Green Bay.

The Packers typically keep between seven and nine offensive linemen on their 53-man roster with one or two settling in on the practice squad. With Bakhtiari, Jenkins, Linsley, and Turner all locks to earn spots if healthy and Taylor and Bulaga all but guaranteed to remain as well, that leaves multiple openings up for grabs. Nijman does have viable competition, principally from second-year man Alex Light, 2018 fifth-round pick Cole Madison, and underwhelming fourth-year swing tackle Jason Spriggs. Still, if Nijman shows enough promise, Green Bay will try to sneak him into the practice squad.

Randy Ramsey and Greg Roberts, OLB, Arkansas and Baylor

Since the early years of the Ted Thompson era, the Packers made a regular practice of finding and retaining undrafted rookie edge rushers. From 2010 through 2017, eight such players forced their way onto Green Bay’s 53-man roster or practice squad: Frank Zombo, Vic So’oto, Dezman Moses, Andy Mulumba, Jayrone Elliott, Jermauria Rasco, Reggie Gilbert, and Chris Odom. While not all ended up making major contributions, several filled critical roles during some of the team’s most successful seasons of recent vintage.

While that practice remains part of the front office’s DNA, the Packers haven’t actually found one worth keeping since Brian Gutekunst took over as general manager in 2018. Last year’s batch included few notable prospects capable of filling that role, with only Texas’ Naashon Hughes offering any realistic promise based on his college production. He didn’t make it, officially ending an eight-year streak of an undrafted rookie pass rusher sticking in Green Bay.

If the Packers hope to avoid a second consecutive year without keeping an undrafted edge rusher, Baylor’s Greg Roberts looks like one of their best bets. Unlike many of the prospects that pass through the seven rounds of the draft, Roberts possesses both good size (6-foot-5, 258 pounds) and athleticism (55th percentile for his position group). Though he lacked production in college -- Roberts registered just three sacks and 60 total pressures over his entire Baylor career -- his physical traits make him an attractive option for the Packers.

But Green Bay signed another undrafted pass rusher worthy of consideration. Randy Ramsey, a multiyear starter for the Arkansas Razorbacks, represents the yin to Roberts’ yang in terms of prospect evaluation. While Roberts possesses superior physical gifts, Ramsey had the more productive college career, producing 8.5 sacks and 59 total pressures over the past three seasons. Arkansas’ coaching staff moved him all around the defense, including extensive work at defensive end and outside linebacker. That versatility could allow Ramsey to audition for multiple roles in Green Bay, adding to his value.

And while the Packers finished the 2019 NFL Draft with six outside linebackers, each one doesn’t necessarily represent true competition to Roberts and Ramsey at the position. The team intends to play both Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith as interior defensive linemen at times, with first-round pick Rashan Gary likely to follow in their footsteps at some point. Green Bay might officially classify the trio as outside linebackers, but their positional versatility could end up taking spots away from the defensive line instead.

If so, leaves only Kyler Fackrell, Reggie Gilbert, and Kendall Donnerson as full-time outside linebackers among the incumbents, and none have guaranteed spots on the roster. Fackrell’s 10.5-sack season looks like a statistical fluke (he registered just 12 total hits on the quarterback), and he enters the final year of his rookie contract. Meanwhile, Gilbert has accomplished little during his three seasons in Green Bay and Kendall Donnerson has yet to appear in a regular-season game. Roberts and Ramsey won’t start their pro career on equal footing with any of them, but either could bridge the gap with a strong performance in training camp and the preseason.