For the second time in as many years, the Green Bay Packers will begin the season with three undrafted free agents on their 53-man roster. A year after undrafted rookies cornerback Sam Shields, outside linebacker Frank Zombo, and offensive lineman Nick McDonald found spots on the roster, safety M.D. Jennings and outside linebackers Vic So’oto and Jamari Lattimore made the 53-man roster after not being selected in April’s NFL draft.
So who exactly are these guys? Here’s a look.
M.D. Jennings, safety
What’s his story: The former Arkansas State safety chose the Red Wolves over the likes of Ole Miss and Mississippi State in order to see immediate playing time. After redshirting in 2006, he saw action in 12 games his freshman year, all as a reserve. He started his sophomore season and recorded a team-high three interceptions, five pass break-ups and 67 tackles. In 2009, he recorded 64 tackles, a team-high six pass break-ups and an interception. He was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference first team in 2010 when he recorded 84 tackles (second on the team), three interceptions, and a sack.
Why wasn’t he drafted: As it is for most undrafted rookies, especially the three who made the Packers’ 2011 roster, Jennings is undersized. Some scouts projected that Jennings would be a nickel corner at the next level due to his 187-pound frame, but for now the Packers project him as a safety. His ball skills were a plus but, despite 225 tackles over his last three years, his run support lacked. His 4.60 40-yard dash was just average.
What he does for the Packers: Other than Charlie Peprah, the Packers had little depth at the safety position entering 2011. Cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood (cut) had the ability to play safety if needed, but Bush is much better as a cornerback and Underwood was let go. That left an opening for a reserve behind Collins, and Jennings was that man.
He will primarily act as a special teams ace but he showed promise during the preseason as a safety, totaling 11 tackles and an interception. He beat out Anthony Levine and Anthony Bratton for the final spot.
Vic So’oto, outside linebacker
What’s his story:
No position was more injury-riddled for the Green Bay Packers in 2010 (and there were a lot of them) than at linebacker. Of the 15 Packers who eventually were placed on injured reserve, four of those players, linebackers Nick Barnett, Brandon Chillar, Brad Jones and Brady Poppinga, were all contributors to a 2009 defense that ranked second in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed.
The depth concerns were amplified at outside linebacker, where Jones had been the clear-cut starter in 2009 after taking over for an injured Aaron Kampman. Inside, Barnett and Chillar were only reserves behind A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop and, while Chillar was used in situational packages, he was easier to replace than finding a new starting outside linebacker.
Jones had not shown any signs of a sophomore slump in his five starts in 2010, which included the first two of the season and weeks five through seven. While he did not produce a sack in those five starts after recording four sacks in seven 2009 starts, Jones recorded 27 tackles, including 16 solo. In a Week 7 contest against the Vikings, however, Jones aggravated a shoulder injury suffered in training camp and was shelved for the rest of the season.
Filling in for Jones was little-known Frank Zombo, an undrafted rookie from Central Michigan. After 32 teams, including the Packers, passed over him in seven different rounds, Zombo tore up the 2010 preseason (18 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble) and found himself on the 53-man roster. He then wasted no time getting into the action, recording a sack in Week 1 against the Eagles and again in Week 3 against the Bears. It seemed the Packers had found their answer in Zombo, but a Week 14 knee injury against the Lions sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season, putting the Packers up against the wall to once again strike gold on a seemingly no-name outside linebacker.
This time around it was Erik Walden’s turn to make general manager Ted Thompson look good. A sixth round draft choice by the Cowboys in 2008, Walden saw time on special teams for Dallas and the Dolphins before latching on with the Packers in October, shortly after Jones was lost for the season.
He only started two regular season games, Week 15 in New England and Week 17 against Chicago, but he certainly made them count. In the season’s final week, with the Packers facing a must-win situation to make the playoffs, Walden ran circles around the Bears offensive line, finishing with 12 tackles (11 solo) and three sacks, earning him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors as the Packers defeated the Bears 10-3 to claim the NFC’s final playoff spot.
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews followed up his stellar rookie campaign with an even better sophomore season, racking up 13.5 sacks and 60 tackles and finishing second in the AP Defensive Player of the Year voting. Making his production even more impressive was that, opposite Matthews, four players saw significant time due to injuries.
Frank Zombo, Brad Jones, Erik Walden and Brady Poppinga all saw time at right outside linebacker, with Jones and Poppinga being lost to season-ending injuries. There’s no question the Packers have plenty of depth at outside linebacker and, as is the case at a couple positions, there will be some tough decisions when Ted Thompson has to cut the roster to 53 players.
Zombo, an undrafted rookie free agent in 2010, is probably the best of the bunch with the brightest future, while Walden performed admirably after being signed in late October. Jones, a seventh round choice two seasons ago, has potential as well but projects as a back-up. Poppinga may make the roster as depth and a good special teams body, but that remains to be seen.