Jeff Janis rarely played on special teams before the Green Bay Packers drafted him in the seventh round two years ago.
He was the best player on the field at Saginaw Valley State, a small Division II school. His purpose was to catch touchdowns, not cover punts. But that blazing, 4.3-second 40-yard-dash speed came in handy as the Packers' gunner this season.
“I thought he had a hell of a year playing special teams,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
Janis was among the biggest reasons the Packers’ special teams were vastly improved in 2015. The team cultivated a strong foundation of core special teams players that included Janis, outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott, fullback Aaron Ripkowski, cornerback Quinten Rollins and safety and special teams captain Chris Banjo.
The Packers ranked No. 17 overall in the Dallas Morning News’ annual special teams rankings, one year after ranking dead last. Their special teams were so abysmal in 2014, it cost them a trip to the Super Bowl with former tight end Brandon Bostick’s botched onside kick recovery in the NFC championship game at Seattle. Those mistakes vanished in 2015, replaced with some genuine bright spots.
The Packers ranked No. 1 in the NFL in punt coverage. Janis, a dominant gunner, led the special teams with 12 tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
His special teams value was seen Saturday in Arizona. When Randall Cobb was knocked out of the Packers' divisional playoff game with a bruised lung, Janis was forced to play the final three quarters at receiver. He was “gassed” to the point coaches tried to remove some of his responsibilities to keep him fresh, but they had to keep him at gunner.
“I was happy for him and proud of him” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said, “because we did ask a lot of him. We tried to take as much off of him as we could. We spelled him on the kickoff team, but there’s things that we needed him. We needed him on the punt team, we needed him as a gunner. And he did a great job, and he sucked it up.
“I heard on the phones one time in the second half there, ‘Jeff’s got to get back. Jeff’s got to get back.’ I thought to myself, ‘Poor guy, he’s dang near out of gas.’ But he sucked it up and did a great job.”
There are some similarities between gunner and receiver. Both require a player to beat contact off the line of scrimmage. A few steps down field, the two positions become quite different. While receivers are free to run their routes without contact because of NFL rules tilted toward the offense, gunners are abused all the way downfield.
Janis said it was difficult to get used to all the contact.
“There’s going to be contact the whole entire way,” Janis said, “and they’re not going to call holding, either. Basically, it’s using your hands, being physical and running as fast as you can, and trying to get by the guy. That’s what I was trying to do.”
He often must beat two — and sometimes three — blockers whose sole goal is to prevent him from tackling the punt returner. So those 12 tackles in 16 games are awfully impressive. They tied for seventh in the NFL, two behind special team Pro Bowlers Justin Bethel and Matthew Slater, according to Pro Football Focus.
His size and strength are valuable in his gunner role, but that speed makes all the difference.
“Most people aren’t able to run with him,” Zook said. “So once he gets a step on them, he’s able to go.”