Speedy Janis continues push for roster spot
ST. LOUIS – If the Green Bay Packers were thinking Jeff Janis probably would spend his rookie season as a raw receiving prospect on their practice squad, those thoughts almost surely are gone.
The seventh-round draft pick from Division II Saginaw Valley State was looking at a tough slog after missing the first seven practices of camp and the preseason opener against Tennessee because of shingles, but now it's hard to see how he won't make the team's 53-man roster.
In the short time since his return, he's made at least one impressive play almost every day, now including on a game day. In his preseason debut Saturday in the Packers' 21-7 win over the St. Louis Rams, Janis' one catch was a big one: a 34-yard touchdown in which his speed turned a short underneath crossing route into a score.
"He continues to do something every day," coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's something that you look for."
The Packers' top four receivers are a given: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Jarrett Boykin and second-round pick Davante Adams.
Jared Abbrederis, a fifth-round pick, was looking like a good bet for the No. 5 job until he sustained a torn ACL that ended his season. Now, in less than two weeks of playing in pads, Janis has filled that void, ahead of Kevin Dorsey, Myles White and others.
In practice over the past week-plus, Janis made several notable catches in team periods, starting in his first padded practice, when he caught a one-handed touchdown in a red-zone drill over starting cornerback Sam Shields. He followed that early last week with a tough twisting catch going down the sidelines against nickel back Casey Hayward for a sizeable gain; and then later in the week he had an outstretched, falling catch on a post pattern for another big play.
"He's made a few plays," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "He's athletic. He's fast. He ran his route, caught a ball and outran everybody today. When you're playing against the first string, you have to run crisp routes and make the plays that are there, so plays like today help him out confidence-wise for sure. He did it in practice last week. Coming back from his ailment, he did a nice job for us."
Janis' performance was especially meaningful because it came four years and a day after his father, Christopher, died of cancer. He tweeted about his father on the anniversary of his death Friday, and when his mind cleared after his touchdown Saturday, he immediately thought of his dad.
"I think I had a pretty good guardian angel over me today," Janis said. "I'm just glad everything happened the way it did."
In another sign of how closely the Packers were looking at Janis for a roster spot going into Saturday, special-teams coach Shawn Slocum also had him open as the punt returner. He lined up deep for four Rams punts and had no ball-security issues. He returned one for nine yards, fair caught another and had the other two go out of bounds.
In college Janis had only one punt return, but he's been working regularly as a backup at that spot since his return to practice.
"I was trying to make sure I caught the ball," Janis said. "That's pretty much all I was trying to do."
Still, the play that mattered most was the touchdown, which came in the third quarter with Matt Flynn at quarterback and the Packers facing third-and-one. The Rams were in man-to-man coverage with safety Maurice Alexander lined up across from Janis, who ran a shallow crossing route, which he says was one of his favorite routes at Saginaw Valley State.
Alexander blew the coverage and was playing catachup when Janis caught the ball over the middle at the 32-yard line. Janis saw open space to the outside, turned on his speed and beat safety Christian Bryant to the end zone untouched.
"He's not the first read," Flynn said of Janis. "He's not even the second read, but I kind of made him my second. I saw the defense, they were in man-to-man coverage and the middle blew wide open."
Said Janis: "Probably right now they're not going to realize how fast I am, so I think that's going to work out in my favor. Hopefully it takes them a little while to realize that."
Janis in fact might be the Packers' fastest receiver. At the NFL scouting combine he ran the 40 in 4.41 seconds, which is a hair faster than the 4.42 White reportedly ran at his campus workout at Louisiana Tech in 2013, and faster than the combine times of Randall Cobb (4.46) and Jordy Nelson (4.51).
"V12, like the engine," Adams said. "You've got the V6, the Honda Accord. You've got the V8 Porsche. And then you've got the V12 (Lamborghini), and that's him."
When asked if Janis is the team's fastest receiver, Nelson said: "Probably. I'm not even going to try to fight for that anymore. I don't know, Myles would probably try to give him a run for it. Probably depends how far they're running."
So with only two preseason games to go, it's hard to see how the Packers could cut Janis. The plays he's made in practice alone suggested he might be able to help the team this year if injuries hit, and by showing his open-field speed in a preseason game, now the rest of the league will have seen him too, which means he'd have little chance of making it through the waivers process and to the practice squad.
When asked if he thinks he's made a good argument for making the final 53 in his short time on the field, Janis said, "I think so but there's a lot more to be proven. It was thrown my way only once and I made one play, so there's a lot more to be done."