GREEN BAY, Wis. -- They all see it. Mike McCarthy, Edgar Bennett, Alex Van Pelt, Jordy Nelson -- and yes, even Aaron Rodgers.
They are not blind to Jeff Janis' potential. They do not ignore the Green Bay Packers third-year wide receiver’s remarkable combination of size (6-foot-3, 219 pounds), speed (4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine) and power (McCarthy says his strength is “what surprises people”). They’ve seen firsthand his knack for the big play (from his burst-on-the-scene plays in the 2014 preseason to the acrobatic, leaping catches he made to force overtime in the Packers’ season-ending playoff loss at Arizona in January).
But for now, as they wrap up organized team activities and shift into next week’s mandatory minicamp, they all continue to speak in terms of Janis’ potential.
From McCarthy, the head coach: “He just needs to continue to progress through the fundamentals of the position. Special teams, he had an excellent year last year. Graded out as one of our top players. I’d like to see him take that same step as a wide receiver.”
From Bennett, the offensive coordinator: “He’s another guy who’s improving, who continues to grow. The fundamentals that we talk about and stress, they’re starting to show up in practice. That’s what it’s about. You want to build a habit where it’s instinctive, you don’t have to think through it, it’s just a natural reaction. I think he’s moving in that direction.”
From Nelson, the Pro Bowl wide receiver whose dimensions (6-foot-3, 217) are eerily similar to Janis’ (but whose game is obviously far more advanced): “Those [young receivers] progressed a lot last year and they’ll continue to grow. I know just through my career, if you don’t progress year after year -- even getting into Year 8 and 9 -- then you’re not going to be around very long. You have to continue to fine-tune your game, [whether] it’s mentally or on the field. Another offseason is great. Another offseason in the classroom of understanding the offense and getting more in depth with it is what everyone needs.”
And from Rodgers, the exacting quarterback whose trust is difficult but vital to earn: “I know you guys love Jeff Janis. All you people out there love Jeff. I love Jeff, too. Jeff made some great plays there at the end of that [playoff] game, and he’s coming along. Again, these are important years for young guys like that. Years 1 to 2 and 2 to 3 are when you can really take jumps. You’ve seen a lot of them over my course of 12 seasons where you see guys really take jumps and start to figure it out. I think he has an opportunity.”
On Monday, during the Packers’ final open OTA practice of the spring, Janis had another of those look-what-he’s-capable-of moments, contesting a 50-50 ball that Rodgers had flung 65 yards in the air. When the ball caromed off cornerback Sam Shields' outstretched hands, Janis was there at the 5-yard line to snare it and waltz into the end zone.
And while the circumstances of the play -- inside the Don Hutson Center, not Lambeau Field; in helmets and shorts, not in full pads; and in an OTA practice on June 6, not in an NFC playoff game on Jan. 6 -- might not have been clutch, the value of it for a player like Janis was undeniable.
“I think it carries value. How much, I can’t really sit here and weigh it. But … that’s a big football play, whether it’s practice or a game,” McCarthy said afterward. “Anytime you’re out there making plays, it not only gives you as an individual confidence [as well as] the quarterback, but also your teammates, too.
“Particularly when you’re dealing with young, developmental players, whether it’s Year 1, 2 or 3. It’s important to make those plays."
Now Janis needs to make more of them -- in next week’s minicamp, in practice during training camp this summer and in preseason games, especially when he’s on the field with Rodgers. While his performance against the Cardinals last January -- seven receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns, having caught four career passes for 95 yards to that point -- opened eyes, he still has work to do.
“I need to see it in practice. I’ve said it for a long time. I need to see those type of plays in practice. Had I seen that play in practice last year, I wouldn’t have been so apprehensive about the Hail Mary at the end of the season when the ball was in the air,” Rodgers said with a smile. “Those are important plays for those guys to get and make and feel better about.”
Whether by happenstance or by design, Janis has not been in the Packers’ locker room during media access periods at OTAs. He is a humble kid who, while appreciative of the folk-hero status some Packers fans have bestowed upon him, has seemed uncomfortable with the adulation in the past. He has acknowledged repeatedly the importance of continuing to improve and winning over Rodgers, and he appears committed to doing so.
Rodgers, meanwhile, is trying to be more patient with Janis’ inconsistency while toeing the line between constructive criticism and positive reinforcement.
“Is it more of an emphasis this year? Maybe,” said Van Pelt, who coached both quarterbacks and receivers last year but is only coaching quarterbacks this year. “We’ve talked more about it, about working more closely with [the young receivers] on a 1-on-1 basis, more of a big-brother/coach type. You don’t have to be best buddies with everybody. That’s never going to happen. But, at the same time, it’s all for the benefit of the team. Being a great leader is about making those around you better. And how do you do that?”
Without mentioning Janis by name, Nelson emphasized the importance of having the correct answers at the ready when Rodgers quizzes the young receivers about plays and routes. Last season, Van Pelt said the difference from Janis’ offense at Division II Saginaw Valley State to the Packers’ complex system is akin to high school algebra versus college calculus.
The hope is that Janis, whose Wonderlic score (30) indicates he’s very bright, can get to where he needs to be mentally so he can show even more of his physical talent.
“It’s about route-running and taking that jump in a comfort level out there,” Rodgers said. “When he can stop thinking so much and react more, you see the athletic ability. He’s obviously gifted very well with his athleticism, his jumping ability and his speed. He just needs to get to a level where he’s not thinking as much and his instincts take over.”