Jeff Janis hopes to justify the hype
Social media feeds his hype. Jeff Janis checks Twitter, and he sees the expectations of a fan base. He knows Green Bay Packers fans want to watch him to develop into a star.
It's been that way for 10 months. Since flashing his raw potential last preseason, the buzz has followed this seventh-round receiver from Saginaw Valley State. Janis can't escape it.
Unless he unplugs.
Around town, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound speedster steps into a different reality. Suddenly, the hype goes away. Barely anyone recognizes him, Janis said.
"I've had people give me some funny looks," he said, "but I really haven't had many people come up to me. I don't know. Maybe because I kind of blend in."
Janis appreciates the excitement resonating from Packers fans. Even if expectations border on unrealistic for a player transitioning from Division II to the NFL, he embraces the natural connection between him and them.
Northeast Wisconsin feels like home, Janis said. It'd be "weird" playing anywhere else. Green Bay is a natural fit for an outdoorsman who enjoys hunting and gets his adrenaline fix riding four wheelers, even though his four-year, $2.27 million contract suggests four wheelers aren't such a good idea.
"At least I'm not on the motorcycle," Janis said. "I used to have those, too."
Yes, he blends in. But there's another reason Janis' celebrity doesn't match his hype.
For all the promise he showed last preseason, catching two touchdown passes and returning a kickoff for another score, his rookie year effectively turned into a redshirt. Janis played only 15 snaps in three games. He caught two passes for 16 yards.
This fall, Janis said, he wants to establish a role for himself on the field. He doesn't care where coaches line him up — slot, outside receiver or special teams. During organized team activities, Janis is simply trying to prove he's reliable.
"I want to go out there and show that I can play and be a starter," Janis said. "That's the ultimate goal. That's kind of what I'm working for."
It's a long trudge from the seventh round to a starting job, especially on a depth chart as talented as the Packers' receiver position. August will be a critical month in Janis' career. Behind Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, the battle to be the Packers' fourth and fifth receivers could be fierce.
The Packers' receivers group should be deeper than last season. Jared Abbrederis, a fifth-round pick, is back from an ACL injury that forced him to miss all of his rookie season. The team also drafted Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery in the third round last month.
It's possible for the Packers to keep Janis, Abbrederis and Montgomery on the 53-man roster, but six receivers would make a crowded depth chart.
"Training camp is going to be tough," Janis said, "but it was tough last year. I missed two weeks of training camp last year (shingles). So I was worried then, but I just showed up and did my best. I'm just going to try to take the same approach this year."
Janis hopes this summer will give him a jumpstart on the competition.
With Nelson missing OTA practices because of a hip injury, Janis has gotten first-team reps. It's his first time consistently sharing the practice field with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. So far, Janis is making the most of it.
The two connected for a fourth-down touchdown during two-minute drills earlier in OTAs. Janis knows the importance of such plays. In this offense, everyone's first priority is earning the MVP quarterback's trust.
"I think the biggest thing with Aaron is he wants us to be mentally on the same page," Janis said. "He knows physical mistakes are going to happen — like dropped balls and things like that — but mental errors are unacceptable to him. So I think that's where I'm really trying to take a step.
"After the play, or something like that happens, and he comes over and says, 'Good job,' that's just a big confidence boost."
Nelson remembers the step-by-step process of earning Rodgers' confidence. It was only a few seasons ago the All-Pro receiver was a second-round rookie searching for his own role.
Back then, practice reps with Rodgers were scarce, gobbled up by former Packers receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings. Nelson said every time he shared the field with Rodgers was a chance to prove himself.
He recognizes the same desperation with Janis.
"It allows you to be in a lot of situations," Nelson said. "I think there's some things you can go over in meeting rooms, but you can't predict situations. The more reps you get, the more situations you're in, the better you are of knowing what Aaron wants. If it's the routes versus coverages, if it's just checks, if it's his demeanor with his checks and how subtle he can be and making sure you're on the same page as him, the speed of the game is the same for you and him at the same time.
"The more you're out there, the more balls you catch, and the more confidence he grows in you, I think that's the key."
Now, Nelson is the veteran watching from the sidelines during these involuntary practices. He said Janis is taking advantage of his opportunity. Come training camp, Nelson said, he expects the increased reps to be beneficial.
Janis said he's more comfortable route-running. He also has a much firmer grip on the Packers' playbook. This offseason, he said, feels like "a completely different world" than last year.
Perhaps most important, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he can also see the improvement.
"He's done a lot of good things going up the field, catching the ball better," McCarthy said. "Obviously, being in synch with Aaron has been a big help. He had one out cut today that the timing of it was good, we completed it, but he can get better there fundamentally. I think Jeff's really improving."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood