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 he wasn't 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: So'oto saw limited action as a freshman tight end, playing primarily on special teams before redshirting in 2006 with a knee injury, So'oto played 12 games as a tight end and caught 12 balls for 124 yards his sophomore year. So'oto was then asked to move from tight end to outside linebacker before the 2008 season, but missed all but one game that season with a foot injury. He saw limited action in 2009 at linebacker, recording 10 tackles on defense and special teams. In 2010, he finally found his niche at outside linebacker, registering 45 tackles, a team-high 11.5 for a loss, and five sacks.
Why he wasn't drafted: Injuries certainly hurt So'oto's draft stock and the fact that he has only played outside linebacker for two years was a concern. He didn't produce much in college and his pre-draft workouts did not stand out (although he did do 35 bench press reps at his pro day). He also had some extra bulk as a 4-3 outside linebacker and did not offer much as a pass defender. Teams who ran 3-4 defenses knew he would be a project. In that sense, he is much like Shields from a year ago.
What he does for the Packers: With the way So'oto played over the last two weeks of the preseason, So'oto might replace Clay Matthews in the starting lineup before long. In all seriousness, So'oto will provide special teams help and could be part of the rotation opposite Matthews. The position is a bit jumbled at this point, with Erik Walden, Brad Jones, Frank Zombo and Jamari Lattimore all in the mix. So'oto will have to work to see time on defense, but then again, that's all he did in preseason. It will be interesting to see what kind of impact he will have in 2011, but he looks great thus far.
Jamari Lattimore, outside linebacker
What's his story: After a year at Dodge County (Kan.) Community College, Lattimore recorded 22 tackles and 3.5 sacks his sophomore year for the Blue Raiders. Lattimore came on strong his junior season, earning second team All-Sun Belt Conference honors with 47 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He also finished the year with three fumble recoveries, an interception and a forced fumble. His senior year was even better, as he was named the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year after recording 68 tackles (15 TFL) and 11.5 sacks, which tied a school record held by current Packer Erik Walden.
Why he wasn't drafted: His weight. There were certainly other reasons, but at 230 pounds, Lattimore is ultra-thin for the position. To put his weight in context, wide receiver Jordy Nelson weighs 217 pounds and is an inch taller. There was no way Lattimore was going to play defensive end at the next level, but his lack of range hurt him as a 4-3 linebacker prospect. That left his only real spot open as a pass-rushing 3-4 linebacker, but dominating the Sun Belt Conference wasn't enough to warrant him a draft pick.
What he does for the Packers: Of the three undrafted rookies who made the roster, Lattimore has to be the most surprising. Not necessarily because of his talent level, but the Packers ended up keeping six outside linebackers. Head coach Mike McCarthy admitted some of the moves were special teams-related, one of which very well could have been keeping Lattimore. His athleticism speaks for itself but he will need to add some bulk before he sees time at outside linebacker. It is apparent, however, that the Packers did not want to lose him by putting him on waivers. The pass rush skills are there, now he needs to round out his game to become a true outside linebacker.