Ask his teammates, the defensive backs who cover Jeff Janis every day in practice. Their respect comes involuntarily, like a reflex. Across the Green Bay Packers’ locker room, Micah Hyde raised his eyebrows. His voice cracked.
How fast is Janis? Hyde couldn’t blurt his answer quickly enough.
“That boy is fast,” Hyde said. “He’s kind of like Jordy. You don’t realize how fast he is until you go at him on a post, and he’s just breaking away from you. The first 10 yards, you think you have him, and after that he’s just flying. He’s gaining ground with every step.”
Quinten Rollins remembers the training camp battles. The Packers’ second-round rookie had no idea what to expect from this second-year, former seventh-round receiver from a Division II school.
When Rollins lined up against Janis, he learned the 6-foot-3 receiver is among the fastest players in a league filled with fast players. After seeing it again Sunday, Rollins spoke quickly, his tone urgent.
How fast is Janis?
“He has deceptive speed,” Rollins said. “By the time you realize it, boom, he’s gone. It’s too late. He made me better in training camp. Just getting a different look from (Randall) Cobb and Davante (Adams), who present different problems as well. So a great, great, great deep-ball threat.”
Janis may be the most maddening player on the Packers’ roster. The flashes come in practice. A deep ball here. A breakaway there. His speed can change a game. If, of course, he ever gets into a game.
Out of necessity, Janis finally found a role in the Packers’ offense Sunday during a 27-20 win against the San Diego Chargers at Lambeau Field. Rookie receiver Ty Montgomery was carted to the locker room with an ankle injury in the first half and never returned. With Adams already out because of an ankle injury, the Packers were down to Cobb and James Jones as regular receivers.
A thin depth chart forced Janis onto the field. His opportunities weren’t in abundance, but he had two long catches — an element that’s been lacking through the Packers’ first six games. A 46-yard diving catch was his longest play of the game, but Janis’ 33-yard catch-and-run on a shovel pass may have been his most impressive.
On the play, Janis rolled to the left side of the field about 5 yards ahead of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. When he locked eyes with Rodgers, Janis said, he knew the football was coming to him.
“It was just another shallow route,” Janis said, “and I came across and kind of got hit by the defender there, and kind of broke loose. He looked right at me, threw me the ball, and I turned it up field and got as many yards as I could.
“I saw two defenders that, I was going to try to split them. But people in the NFL are pretty fast, so it makes it a little difficult.”
Yes, an NFL field has a lot of fast people. Not everyone runs like Janis. He clocked a 4.37-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine before the draft.
The 33-yard catch-and-run play reminded Janis of how he played in college, he said. At Saginaw Valley State, the offense predicated on getting the football to Janis with short, underneath routes, and letting the speedy receiver do the rest. Finally, he got his chance to do it on an NFL field.
“It definitely felt good to get out in the open field a little bit and use my legs,” Janis said.
When Janis gets into the open field, his talent is undeniable. So why are his opportunities so few? So far, it’s been about trust.
Rodgers, the two-time MVP, has high expectations for teammates. Fail to impress him, and receivers won’t see many passes. Which is why Janis’ first catch Sunday was so important.
Before the play, Janis said, his quarterback simply barked for him to go deep. So he did. Janis was running a post route when he noticed Rodgers rolling left. He shadowed his quarterback, tried to offer a target downfield. When Rodgers heaved his pass in the air, Janis admitted, he wasn’t sure whether it was intended for him or tight end Richard Rodgers, who was also in the area.
At what seemed like the last moment, Janis dove underneath the pass. The 46-yard gain was the longest in his career. The final tally was two catches for 79 yards — his first two receptions of the season — and one impressed quarterback.
“He made two good plays,” Rodgers said. “He made the reaction play on kind of the scramble drill and then as I evaded the rush there on the last drive he made a nice job to use his speed. He’s a fast guy. We like to try to get him in space at times and he did a good job with the run after the catch there.”
Janis’ two catches showed what it takes to earn Rodgers’ trust, and the promise of what he could provide the Packers’ sluggish offense if he does. While the Packers offense certainly has had its successes this season — Rodgers was quick to point out his unit scored 27 points Sunday, nothing to apologize about — there has been a missing element.
The explosive plays that were so prevalent with Jordy Nelson last season have been almost invisible since he tore his ACL in the preseason.
Janis is not Nelson. There’s a reason his opportunities have been rare. While he’s made an impact on special teams, Janis still is developing as a receiver after entering the league as a raw prospect last year. Still, there is that game-changing speed, something he shows seemingly every time the football finds him.
“He can move, now,” Rollins said. “Throw times out the window. He can fly, regardless.”
Said Hyde: “He’s growing every day. In practice, you just throw him in and he makes plays, whether it’s special teams or offense. That guy is a playmaker, and you can tell he’s learning. Today showed he’s definitely learning. He’s a huge weapon for us on offense.”
The question is whether the offense will start to use Janis as that “huge” weapon. The Packers will have the bye week to figure it out. A year ago, the team used its bye to fix its struggling defense with a dramatic adjustment, moving linebacker Clay Matthews to the inside.
Could the Packers use this year’s bye week to add an extra dimension to their offense? Even if Janis isn’t a complete receiver, he appears to be a speedy playmaker. Rodgers wouldn’t say it’s time Janis to get a bigger role. Janis can only hope.
“It was pretty awesome just to get Aaron’s trust and have his confidence in me,” Janis said. “It felt really good. So hopefully he looks my way a little more often.”