One of the most enthralling aspects of the off-season is following the stories of players you might not otherwise be familiar with. Every year, a few training camp folk heroes arise and make a strong push for the active roster.
Former Wyoming Cowboy Rico Gafford fits the bill for the Green Bay Packers. With a unique positional history, blazing speed, the ability to play multiple special teams positions — and the ever-more-popular Las Vegas Raiders connection — Gafford is impressing at training camp and becoming an exhilarating summer follow. Can the versatile cornerback land a spot on the active roster?
The former Wyoming cornerback has had an interesting journey in his NFL career. After playing for two years at Iowa Western Community College, he transferred to Wyoming. There he tallied 103 tackles, six interceptions, 17 defended passes, and three forced fumbles. In his senior season, he made second-team All-Mountain West Conference.
Following the 2018 NFL Draft, Gafford signed with the Tennessee Titans, where a young Matt LaFleur was offensive coordinator, as a UDFA. However, they released him before the season. A few days later, he joined the then-Oakland Raiders practice squad. The Raiders coaching staff suggested a move to wide receiver thanks to Gafford’s speed. That season, he saw some NFL snaps on special teams.
In 2019, he spent most of the season on the Raiders’ practice squad again. However, he saw some playing time as a wide receiver later in the season. His first NFL completion was a 49-yard touchdown catch from Derek Carr.
Gafford bounced between teams, including the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, and Denver Broncos, before signing a reserve/future contract with Green Bay in January 2022. Following the draft, where Green Bay took three wide receivers, LaFleur suggested that Gafford switch back to cornerback.
“Coach LaFleur came up to me, Gafford said during training camp. “He was like, ‘The receiver room is pretty stacked right now. Your best bet honestly to make the team is to go back to defense.’ I was like, ‘Say less, Coach. Say less.'”
Gafford relished the chance, having come to a similar conclusion himself. “Honestly, I was contemplating doing that, anyway,” Gafford said, per Sports Illustrated’s Bill Huber. “I had a few teams call me before I signed with the Packers to see how I felt about going back to defense.
“But I’m going into Year 5, and I haven’t really made a splash or anything in the league. So, I’m like, ‘If I go back to corner, I can really showcase what I can do on the field and what I really am and who I really am at heart, and that’s a DB.'”
Green Bay’s wide receiver room is unproven but crowded. However, cornerback is another story. The Packers have one of the best starting trios in the league with Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas, and Eric Stokes. But beyond their top three, there isn’t much in the way of proven depth. Gafford stands a good chance to make the roster if he can rise to the top of the depth chart at corner. He’s been turning heads at training camp thanks to his lightning speed and the ball skills he gained during his time at receiver.
But like the other former Raiders signed this off-season, Gafford’s connection to Rich Bisaccia and his special teams acumen are his best chance to prove himself in the NFL.
Gafford played 27 special teams snaps for the Raiders, where Bisaccia was previously the special teams coordinator. While Gafford didn’t see much playing time on the active roster, Bisaccia knows his skills and isn’t afraid to lean on Gafford in special teams.
He can be a reliable gunner and an asset on field goal blocking and kick coverage, and Gafford has recently seen some play as a kick returner in camp. While he’s only returned one kick at the NFL level, he has collegiate experience there.
Bisaccia said he’d look at every option on special teams, especially for his returners, an area Green Bay was awful at in 2021. Gafford’s pure speed and special teams experience could make him the answer, which might be the key to making the active roster. Although really, anyone who can catch the ball and not go backwards is a massive upgrade over last season.
When it comes to fringe roster players, the more you can do, the better your chance of making it over other guys. If Gafford can emerge as a reliable depth cornerback — which it sounds like he is — and become a major contributor on special teams, he’s got a great shot at joining the team on Sundays. With his experience as a wide receiver, he can even be an emergency option there.
A do-it-all player with an interesting football story and the heart to give it their all is what the off-season is all about, and Gafford is an easy player to root for. He checks a lot of boxes for the Packers and should be one of the most intriguing depth players to follow this summer.