Quick question: as they pertain to Green Bay, what do these players have in common: D’Onta Foreman, Samaje Perine, Tarik Cohen, Joe Williams, Donnel Pumphrey, Brian Hill, Jeremy McNichols, and T.J. Logan. I’ll have the answer momentarily.
It astonishes me how many players have excellent college careers, and yet are chosen late in the draft or not drafted at all despite their college exploits. The Packers have feasted of late in acquiring so many unheralded and under-appreciated players.
Let’s start with Aaron Jones. The guy was Mr. Everything playing for UTEP down in El Paso. He owns most of UTEPs rushing records, and in four years there, and despite some injuries, his rushing average was a gaudy 6.3 yards per carry.
In his final collegiate season in 2016, he was statistically one of the nation’s three best running backs. He tallied seven 100-plus rushing yard games, including three 200-plus yard games and a 300-plus yard contest. He scored at least one touchdown in 11 games, and had 20 TDs on the season. He set his school’s single season records for rushing yards (1,773), carries (229), and rushing average (7.7). Nationally, he ranked fourth in rushing yards and third in yards per game.
That’s not a misprint: Jones averaged 7.7 yards per carry in his final year. He did this despite having very little help. Here’s how I described Jones and UTEP back in early 2019:
“The fifth-rounder out of UTEP was virtually the only talented player in El Paso during his four years with the Miners. Every defense UTEP faced had but one focus: stopping the small but well-built running back and his lightning-quick changes-of-direction. Very few opponents held Jones down. . .From 2013 through 2016, Jones was UTEP football. Though the team had 18 wins and 31 losses in that time, they probably don’t win a half-dozen games without Aaron. Minus Jones, the Miners went winless in 2017.”
Statistically, Jones ranked among the top three collegiate rushers in 2016. Yet, he was still available when the Packers selected him with the 182nd draft pick in 2017 – eighteen running backs preceded him in that draft, including the eight players named in the first paragraph. It was a good year for RBs – the first three chosen were Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and Dalvin Cook.
How could 31 NFL teams fail to appreciate Aaron’s talent and ability? It must have been partly due to UTEP not being a college powerhouse. Mostly, though, he was likely overlooked due to his stature: 5’9” and 208 pounds. Whatever the reason, the Packers got a steal (and a bargain) in the 2017 draft, and it’s been paying dividends ever since.
Another guy whose talent was overlooked by the rest of the league is Allen Lazard. Allen was a star receiver from 2014 through 2017 at Iowa State. In 48 games played, he racked up 241 catches, for 3,360 yards, (13.9 yard average), and 26 touchdowns. He was second team All-Big 12 in 2015 and first-team in 2016 and 2017. NFL teams picked 32 wide receivers in the 2017 draft – how did this 6’5” 227-pound receiver, and great blocker, fail to be chosen in the first four rounds, much less go undrafted?
While the Packers are to be commended for acquiring and developing Lazard, it could easily not have happened. As TP’s Jason Parker described here, Lazard finally got his chance when Green Bay played Detroit on October 14, 2019. The Pack was already without Davante Adams for the game, and then Geronimo Allison was knocked out on the first play of the second half.
Lazard, who hadn’t been targeted all season and only had one reception in 2018, found himself next man up. Down by nine at home in the fourth quarter, Rodgers hit him for a 35-yard TD to cut the lead to 2. On the final drive of the game, Rodgers found Lazard three more times, putting the Packers in position for the winning field goal as time ran out. The final score was 23-22.
The rest, as they say, is history – and there is plenty more of it to come from Lazard, who is only 25 years old. But for a rash of injuries, Lazard might have ended his pro career with one catch.
Another Packers player who, like Aaron Jones, went unpicked in the 2017 NFL draft, Tonyan labored for five years at Indiana State – and did so largely in obscurity. He actually was a quarterback until the 6’5” 237-pounder found his niche as a receiver in year two. While Tonyan received little notice nationally at Indiana State, in 2014 he caught 54 passes for 747 yards and 4 TDS (6th best in school history) and four touchdowns; in 2015 he had 40 receptions for 601 yards and 6 TDs despite starting just six games; as a junior he received honorable mention on the All-Missouri Valley team; as a senior, he had 56 catches for 699 yards and 10 TDs.
After going undrafted, Detroit snapped him up and signed him to a 3-year $1.66M deal – but then released him before the start of the season. The Packers picked him up for the final four games of 2017 and proceeded to tender him an exclusive-rights contract in 2019.
In May Tonyan signed a tender deal for $3.4 million. It is to the Packers’ credit that they saw the promise that Tonyan held, and had the patience to help him develop. Among Tonyan’s achievements last season, he tied with Travis Kelce for most touchdowns by a tight end, and he had the league-second-best catch rate, 52 catches out of 59 throws for an incredible 88.1 percent (teammate Jamaal Williams beat him by one-tenth of a percentage point). And Big Bob managed all this without being a starter.
After watching him bloom in 2020, Packer fans are eager to see what he has in store for us in 2021.
For the current year, let’s start with Kylin Hill, who the Packers latched onto as one of the last four players taken in this year’s draft. In his third season at Mississippi State, all the 5’10” 214-pound RB did was rush for 1,350 yards (5.6 average) and 10 touchdowns. He led the talent-laden SEC in rushing yards per game, and was named second-team all-conference.
According to Fan Nation, Hill fell from being a potential Day 2 pick to one of the last picks of the draft. Likely reasons include: a new head coach installing a pass-heavy offense, a one-game suspension, and Hill then opting out of the rest of the season after just three games. Apparently scouts have short memories, as Hill’s impressive play in his first three years was blotted out by his abbreviated final year.
First of course, Hill needs to make Green Bay’s roster, and he faces some formidable rivals in that quest. It appears, however, based on the buzz out of training camp, that he’ll make the team, and likely even earn some playing time this season. We’ll have to wait to find out if Hill will prove to be another player that the rest of the league overlooked. One thing for sure: his draft placement is not a good measure of his ability.
Here’s a guy out of lower-division Appalachian State, which probably explains why other NFL teams passed on their chances to draft him. GM Gutekunst landed Jean-Charles late in the fifth draft round, at number 178 overall. While like Hill, he’s not yet assured of making the team, there’s been a lot of excitement about him leading up to and at training camp.
How did Shemar do in four active years down in Boone, North Carolina? By the time he finished up there, here are some of his achievements (mostly in 2020): first-team All-American by Walter Camp Football Foundation; All-American via Sporting News and PFF College (second team); semifinalist for the Bednarik Award (nation’s top defender) and Thorpe Award (nation’s top defensive back); PFF’s Sun Belt Player of the Year; nation’s leader as a senior with 16 pass break-ups and 17 passes defended (in 12 games); from 2019-20, his 27 passes defended (PBUs and INTs) were tops in the FBS.
In five years with the program, Shemar helped App State go 52-13, with five bowl wins and four Sun Belt Conference championships; Pro Football focus ranked him the 16th-best player in all of college football in 2020. That’s not a misprint either.
Until Jaire Alexander emerged as a shutdown CB last season, the Packers have lacked a really clingy defensive back for at least half a decade; If Jean-Charles’ ability as a pass defender translates to the pros, the Packers might suddenly have two of the league’s best CBs.
The above five players turned in a great deal of impressive play as collegians, but failed to get the attention at draft time that they appear to have merited. Three of them, Jones, Lazard, and Tonyan, have been instrumental in the Packers garnering a 26-6 regular season record over the past two seasons. Rookies Hill and Jean-Charles are unproven as professionals, though their college exploits strongly suggest that they too have been underrated by the rest of the league.
In this challenging era of salary cap restrictions, the Packers have managed to add several talented and valuable players to their rosters without expending high draft choices or handing out mega-dollar contracts. Both Ted Thompson and Brian Gutekunst have excelled at spotting talent and potential at the bargain rack.
Who knows, maybe in a couple years Packer fans will be singing the praises of some other undrafted rising star or stars, like Iowa’s Jack Heflin (who just popped up on the team’s depth chart as first backup to Kingsley Keke). . .or Virginia Tech’s Yosh Nijman (first backup to David Bakhtiari). . .or Michigan’s Ben Braden (first backup to Lucas Patrick). . .or Baylor’s Henry Black (first backup to Darnell Savage). . .or Colorado’s Kabion Ento. . .or Indiana State’s Dominique Dafney. . .or Ferris State’s Malik Taylor. . ..or Utah State’s Tipa Galeai. . .or Illinois State’s Christian Uphoff. Who among this group will be Green Bay’s next Robert Tonyan or Allen Lazard? What’s your guess?