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A changing NFL climate may explain the volume of Packers’ Day 3 picks

The post-pandemic salary cap and rising UDFA guarantees are the reason for Green Bay’s pivot

NFL: APR 27 2023 Draft Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the past two seasons, the Green Bay Packers have made 24 draft choices, including 16 on the final day of the draft and eight in the seventh round alone. As general manager Brian Gutekunst pointed out in his post-draft press conference, the team is also expected to have at least 11 draft picks in the 2024 draft — due to three compensatory picks (all scheduled for Day 3) and the pick via the New York Jets from the Aaron Rodgers trade.

Just a few years ago, it would have been unfathomable to think that an NFL team would turn in cards for 35 players over a three-year stretch, let alone make four seventh-round picks in back-to-back drafts. The NFL draft process is changing, though, in some ways specifically for the Packers and in other ways league-wide. Here are some of the factors that explain Green Bay’s new-found volume approach to Day 3 of the draft.

Factor 1: Covid years

One of the biggest factors in the depth of recent draft classes is that players were awarded an extra year of eligibility to play college football by the NCAA, if they were on a roster for the 2020 season. This extra year of eligibility has given many players an opportunity to play at the college level for six seasons (including their redshirt year), which means that fifth-year prospects who want to enter the upcoming draft actually have to “declare early” for it.

This has created a lag of talent that should continue in the draft until the 2020 high school recruiting class approaches its senior season of college. For example, a Sports Illustrated article claimed that roughly 1,800 prospects typically sign with NFL-certified agents each draft cycle. In the 2021 class, only 652 prospects signed with agents — putting into perspective how many undrafted and/or late-round type of players are opting to return to school with that extra year of eligibility.

In theory, this talent lag should have rewarded the 2022 and 2023 draft classes with more veteran and polished draft prospects (and should also be a trend that continues through the 2026 draft.) Is it a coincidence that those are the seasons where we’ve seen the Packers emphasize taking as many seventh-round picks as they can, getting a jump on undrafted free agency?

Factor 2: Undrafted free agent guarantees rising

This is a subject that’s Lance Zierlein — who writes the site’s player profiles — has mentioned on Twitter before. Here are his thoughts, if you missed them.

Very interesting shift in NFL team philosophies regarding undrafted free agents is happening. With some UDFAs making more money on the open market than most late round picks, teams may start adding more late picks and using them to avoid overpaying for back-end talent.

For perspective, I read this morning that one UDFA got 230K guaranteed while Brock Purdy got 77K last year guaranteed as the last pick of the draft. Three times the guaranteed amount for a player who has a less than 50% chance to make it? Wow!

With the cap rising, teams seem to be more aggressive with the contract terms that they sign undrafted free agents to. The league has an “undrafted rookie reservation” number, which caps the pool that individual teams can use for signing bonuses on undrafted players. In 2023, that number is $172,337. There is nothing preventing teams from guaranteeing salary to undrafted free agents, though, which explains the inequality between the signing power of teams across the league, depending on their cap situation.

Sports Illustrated’s Bill Huber recently wrote about the Packers’ undrafted free agents from the 2023 class, which included these thoughts on Green Bay’s approach from an anonymous agent.

Moreover, Green Bay was one of only five teams in 2022 that didn’t guarantee a single dollar of base salary to entice anyone to sign.

As one agent said of making decisions, “The most important thing is opportunity. Does my client have a legitimate chance to contend for a spot on the 53 or even the practice squad? For Green Bay, they’ve got a strong history of giving undrafted guys a fair shake. That matters. But if one team is offering $15,000 guaranteed and the Packers are offering $5,000, that’s hard to ignore. Generally, money talks and money means opportunity.”

The Packers, once known as the team with the most opportunities in undrafted free agency (because of their willingness to roster them over the years), have simply stepped back in the pecking order in recent seasons because of the exploding guarantees market for UDFAs. If a player doesn’t make the squad, franchises are still on the hook for their guaranteed salary — even beyond a player’s signing bonus. That adds dead cap to a team’s accounting, which brings us to our third factor.

Factor 3: Green Bay’s salary cap bind

According to salary cap guru Ken Ingalls, the Packers currently have -$1 million in effective salary cap space going into the 2023 season, even after a projected extension with outside linebacker Rashan Gary that should bring the edge rusher’s cap hit down in the short term. This is why Green Bay is (and should be) so cautious with guarantees in the undrafted free agent market. Every cent counts when you’re pinching pennies. The cost of going all-in, cap-wise, during the end of the Aaron Rodgers era means that the team is having to pay back its credit card debt at the moment.

For perspective, Samori Toure — the fourth of four seventh-round picks the Packers turned in back in 2022 — received a $77,008 signing bonus to sign a four-year deal with Green Bay but didn’t see a penny of his $3.7 million salary (over four years) be guaranteed by the team. That means that Toure’s potential dead cap would be about one-third of that of top undrafted free agents, according to Zierlein’s claim. Yes, it can be cheaper to move on from draft picks than top undrafted free agents. That’s where the NFL is today and explains how much the rookie wage scale suppresses the cash and guarantees of draft picks.

Factor 4: Fewer recruiting visits

Under former general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers almost exclusively used their allotted 30 pre-draft visits on recruiting visits for potential undrafted free agents. In recent seasons, Gutekunst has used these visits to get an extra look at potential draft picks. In 2022, the team selected six players in the draft who were brought into Green Bay, for reference. In the 2023 draft, four were taken (DL Karl Brooks, WR Dontayvion Wicks, RB Lew Nichols III and QB Sean Clifford.)

When it was all said and done, only 9 of the 30 players that the team brought in hit undrafted free agency after the 2023 draft. Eight of those prospects were at positions that the Packers had already addressed with a draft pick. Only two, tight end Camren McDonald and offensive tackle Kadeem Telfort, have reportedly signed with Green Bay since the draft concluded.

Factor 5: Fewer available roster spots

In 2022, the only undrafted free agent rookie to make the Packers’ roster was long snapper Jack Coco, who originally didn’t even sign with the team as an undrafted free agent after the draft but earned a spot on the team after impressing during a tryout at Green Bay’s rookie minicamp. When breaking down the Packers’ potential 53-man roster after the draft, the picture painted was that it’s going to be very difficult for a UDFA to make this team, too, because of all of the young draft picks on the team and the new-found emphasis on special teams-only players that special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia has brought to the squad.

So why are the Packers making so many Day 3 picks, particularly in the seventh round? Draft classes are deeper because of the extra year of eligibility awarded to college players who were in the NCAA in 2020, undrafted free agents are making more guaranteed at a time when Green Bay can’t afford to add more dead cap and the team’s undrafted free agent pipeline isn’t what it used to be now that Gutekunst is using visits on more draftable prospects while there are fewer roster spots for undrafted free agents to legitimately contend at.

This isn’t bad, per se, but it certainly is a pivot of strategy from what the Packers have done over the better part of the last two decades. Only time will tell if Gutekunst is right to go through with this plan, but expect it to continue until at least when Green Bay’s cap situation gets to a better place in 2025.