Diamonds in the Huddle: Best Undrafted Free Agents in Packers History
There has to be a little betting man inside every NFL general manager when it comes to selecting undrafted free agents. Employing less expensive undrafted free agents (UDFAs) is just one way a team is able to keep its salary structure at a manageable level, particularly if that player blossoms into something special. You might call that the ultimate value proposition for an NFL general manager.
We looked back in Green Bay Packers history at every UDFA selection since 1960 to amass the top five UDFAs in Packers’ history (so far) who have had at least five years as a Green Bay starter.
A few players that were in the discussion for the last spot, but didn’t quite make it.
Ryan Longwell – certainly a nice career with the Packers, but I couldn’t live with myself if I included a field goal kicker here, especially one that kicked for the Minnesota Vikings.
Ed West – 11 years with the Packers, 14 years total in the NFL. West was a steady, if unspectacular player. A 14-year NFL career for an UDFA is nothing to sneeze at. Longevity points.
And so without further adieu, here are my selections for the five greatest Packers UDFAs since 1960.
5) George Koonce
Inside Linebacker, 6’1″, 245 lbs.
Eight seasons in Green Bay (1992-99) 112 games, 433 tackles, 122 assists, 7.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, 6 fumble recoveries
Out of East Carolina, George Koonce was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Atlanta Falcons after the 1991 NFL draft. He was in the Falcons’ camp with a brash second-round pick named Brett Favre, but was cut during the preseason. He played in the WFL the following spring and, along with Favre and was brought to Green Bay by Ron Wolf for the 1992 season. Koonce won a starting job during his first season with the Packers and never looked back.
He started all but 10 of the 112 games he played with the Packers and his penchant for ferocious hits made him a fan favorite. Koonce, along with Reggie White, led a defensive resurgence for the Packers; a big reason the Packers made it to two Super Bowls in the ’90s.
Nobody, however, can argue over the enjoyment Koonce brought to Packers fans when he would unleash a crushing hit on a running back.
4) Mark Murphy
Safety, 6’2″, 200 lbs.
Eleven seasons in Green Bay (1980-91 — missed 1986 season due to injury) 147 games, 687 tackles, 239 assists, 11 sacks, 20 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries
Out of tiny West Liberty State, Mark Murphy came to the Packers as a free agent in 1980.
He was primarily Johnnie Gray’s backup for three seasons before becoming the starter in year four after Gray retired. Murphy would continue as the starting strong safety for eight years, serving as one of the few bright spots on some pretty mediocre Packers defenses in the 1980s. Easy to spot with his helmet off, the bald-headed Murphy was also easy to find on the field – just follow the ball.
For a safety to have 687 unassisted tackles in basically eight years of playing, it shows both how active he was and also how weak the Packers defense was in front of him. Murphy would lead the Packers in tackles three different seasons and is fifth all-time in career tackles for the Packers.
Murphy was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1998.
3) Johnnie Gray
Safety, 5’11″, 185 lbs.
Nine seasons in Green Bay (1975-83) 124 games, 771 tackles, 230 assists, 22 interceptions, 20 fumble recoveries, 85 punt returns, 21 kickoff returns
Out of Cal State Fullerton, the undersized Johnnie Gray was overlooked in the 1975 draft. Fortunately, the Packers signed Gray as an undrafted free agent and found their starting safety for the next nine seasons. Gray played at the free safety position for six years before switching to strong safety for his final three seasons. Gray manned the Packers secondary during that black hole in the Packers defensive history we all like to forget — the 1970s and ’80s.
Much like Mark Murphy, who took over the strong safety job when Gray retired, Gray had to be everywhere on the field. Gray had three seasons with over 100 total tackles and is still second on the all-time Packers career tackles list. Only John Anderson has more tackles as a Packer than Johnnie Gray.
Gray also recovered 20 fumbles as a Packer, good enough for second place on the Packers all-time list, tied with Ray Nitschke and only one less than Willie Davis. Gray was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1994.
2) Paul Coffman
Tight End, 6’3″, 222 lbs.
Eight seasons in Green Bay (1978-85) 124 games, 322 catches, 4,223 yards, 39 TDs
Out of Kansas State, Paul Coffman was not drafted or even pursued by any NFL team. When a Packers assistant coach came to Kansas State to work out one of his teammates, Coffman decided to ask for a tryout with the Packers. Coffman’s request was granted, and he surprised absolutely everyone by making the team.
Although he sat on the bench as a rookie, Coffman exploded onto the NFL scene his second season, starting all 16 games and catching 56 passes, breaking the Packers’ record previously held by Ron Kramer. Coffman would go on to catch 322 passes and score 39 touchdowns for the Packers while averaging an outstanding 13.1 yards per catch.
Over his seven prime years with the Packers, Coffman averaged 46 catches per year. He was known for his precise routes, great hands and ability to make catches with defenders draped all over him.
He worked hard on his blocking and, with the help of his coaches, also developed into one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. Paul Coffman is a three-time Pro Bowler and in 1994 was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
1) Willie Wood
Free Safety, 5’10″, 180 lbs.
Twelve seasons in Green Bay (1960-71) 166 games, 48 interceptions, 16 fumble recoveries, 187 punt returns, 20 kickoff returns
Being a 5’10″ African-American quarterback known more for running the ball than passing in the 1950s did not exactly put one very high on any NFL team’s prospect list. Not surprisingly, Willie Wood was ignored in the NFL draft. And his phone wasn’t ringing after the draft. Wood embarked on a letter-writing campaign, but only one NFL GM responded: Vince Lombardi.
Lombardi agreed to give Wood a chance at defensive back. It was a gamble that paid off hundreds of times over. Although he barely made the team and mostly sat the bench while he learned a new position, by the start of his second season Wood was a starter and would stay there for 11 seasons.
Wood would go on to be one of the best defensive backs the game has ever known with his athletic ability helping him to excel in all aspects of play. Pass coverage, tackling, interceptions, returning punts, Wood could do it all at a high level. Willie Wood was an eight-time Pro Bowler and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989. Wood is one of only 13 undrafted players to have their busts in Canton.
Undrafted Players in the NFL Hall of Fame
1946 — Frank Gatski, G, Cleveland Browns
1946 — Lou Groza, T/K, Cleveland Browns
1946 — Marion Motley, FB, Cleveland Browns
1946 — Bill Willis, G, Cleveland Browns
1948 — Joe Perry, FB, San Francisco 49ers
1948 — Emlen Tunnell, DB, New York Giants
1952 — Dick “Night Train” Lane, DB, Los Angeles Rams
1960 — Willie Wood, DB, Green Bay Packers
1963 — Willie Brown, DB, Houston Oilers (cut by Oilers and signed by Denver Broncos)
1966 — Emmitt Thomas, DB, Kansas City Chiefs
1967 — Larry Little, G, San Diego Chargers
1970 — Jim Langer, C, Cleveland Browns (cut by Browns and signed by Miami Dolphins)
1984 — Warren Moon, QB, Houston Oilers
1990 — John Randle, DT, Minnesota Vikings
Jersey Al Bracco is the founder of AllGreenBayPackers.com. He is a co-host on CheeseheadRadio and the Packers draft analyst for DraftTek.com.