Packers' streak of UDFAs making the cut hits 19 years with latest trio

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- With some teams, undrafted rookies are an afterthought, a way to fill out the 90-man offseason roster to make sure they have enough players to run a thorough practice. For the Green Bay Packers, they’re more than that.

Every year since 2005, the Packers have kept at least one -- and sometimes several -- undrafted rookie on their season-opening roster.

So when, shortly after this year’s draft, ESPN asked a high-ranking member of the team’s personnel staff to identify one or more undrafted rookie who might have a real shot to make the team, it wasn’t just a throwaway question.

The players picked out back in May: Brenton Cox Jr. and Malik Heath.

Sure enough, when Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst pared his roster to the initial 53 this week, still standing were Cox (the outside linebacker who got kicked off two different college teams) and Heath (the receiver who was arrested for, among other things, driving under the influence). Both were part of the team's initial 12-player undrafted rookie class.

“Both would’ve been drafted if not for some issues,” the personnel staffer said back then.

Gutekunst didn’t stop filling the roster with that pair of undrafted free agents. He also kept running back Emanuel Wilson, who wasn’t part of their initial UDFA class.

Cox and Heath both received the largest signing bonuses -- the whopping sum of $9,000 -- among the Packers undrafted class. Some teams guarantee larger portions of undrafted rookie contracts. (e.g., tight end Ben Sims, who was claimed off waivers from the Vikings on Wednesday and got Minnesota to guarantee $110,000 of his undrafted rookie contract).

The Packers promise opportunity over money.

“I don’t know if we’ve done a whole lot of metrics on that, although when we get to UDFA recruiting we certainly use that quite a bit,” Gutekunst said. “But I think, first of all, the one thing I do appreciate working for the Green Bay Packers is that it’s really about you’re going to get a real opportunity. You’re going to have an opportunity. Just because somebody was drafted ahead of you or may have been here for previous years doesn’t mean you’re not going to get an opportunity to make the squad.

“We don’t have a traditional owner [Packers are owned by thousands of stakeholders, represented by team president Mark Murphy]; that may have something to do with it as well. So maybe we’re able to make those decisions a little easier. But I do think as we’ve gone into camps that I’ve been a part of here, for the most part, it’s been an open competition and let the guys who perform the best ... earn it.”

If that trio makes it to Week 1 against the Bears, they will become the 40th, 41st and 42nd undrafted free agents originally signed by the Packers to make their opening-day roster since 2005. That group includes the likes of cornerback Sam Shields (2010), Lane Taylor (2013), Mike Pennel Jr. (2014) and Krys Barnes (2020) -- each of whom become a starter or regular contributor in the league.

Wilson, from Fort Valley State, was easily the biggest surprise of the three who made it this time around. He began training camp sixth on the running back depth chart. It wasn’t even a sure thing that the Packers would keep a third back behind Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. Gutekunst must have been concerned that Wilson -- who garnered national attention after his 80-yard touchdown run in the preseason opener at Cincinnati on the anniversary of his father’s death -- wouldn’t make it through waivers and, therefore, wouldn’t make it back to join the practice squad.

Wilson said he was unaware of the Packers' history with undrafted free agents but felt like he got the same shot as players who came in as draft picks. This, after he was cut following just three days with the Broncos.

"This organization gives you the opportunity each and every day," he said. "I'm blessed with that."

Heath was as close to a lock as any undrafted rookie since perhaps Shields. And even Shields didn’t get as much playing time with the starters as Heath did this summer. He’s likely the No. 4 receiver, and with Romeo Doubs (hamstring) missing the preseason finale, Heath started against the Seahawks.

"In my mind, I’m still, like I’m dreaming or something," Heath said a day after making the team. "Because I’m actually on the team and I’m on the 53 and I’m on Madden and stuff like that. I just played Madden last night, and I’m throwing myself nothing but go balls. Like I’m still in the movie right now. I’m still dreaming right now. I can’t wake up. That first game I’m gonna wake up, though, for sure. I’m still soaking everything in."

Cox was one of six outside linebackers to make the initial roster -- and at this point, he might be No. 6 on the depth chart -- but all he wanted was a shot.

"They definitely gave me a shot, left everything in the past, as it should’ve been," Cox said after making the roster. "I appreciate [coach] Matt [LaFleur], I appreciate the organization for doing that."

Heath, according to media reports, was arrested in 2020 for driving under the influence, driving without a license or insurance and other motor vehicle offenses. He was at Mississippi State at the time but finished his college career at Mississippi.

Cox began his career at Georgia but was dismissed from the team after one season reportedly because of an arrest for marijuana and disagreements with the coaching staff. He landed at Florida, where he played two seasons before being dismissed for undisclosed reasons.

“Our philosophy is that I don't really care what's happened in the past,” LaFleur said. “You come here, you have a clean slate and you can write your own story. Those guys have embraced that, and they've done a really nice job for us, and that's the expectation moving forward. You're under constant evaluation throughout your own time here, and we'll make sure that we uphold that standard for them, and they've gotta go along with that.”