It was Jeff Janis’ first touchdown in Arizona, not the miraculous second, that gave the Green Bay Packers receiver a glimpse at the potential future.
The moment was captured in a picture from the sideline. Janis, standing in the end zone, lifted the football high above his head like a trophy. There was only one teammate close enough to be in the shot.
That would be Jared Abbrederis.
There they were — Nos. 83 and 84 — celebrating a go-ahead touchdown in what would become the Packers' season-ending defeat in the NFC divisional round. Janis said he thought about their history together, a friendship that predates their time with the Packers. He wondered what could come next.
“Looking back at some of the pictures, and just being in the huddle, and my first touchdown when he was right there,” Janis said, “it was just kind of cool. We trained together for the combine, went to the Senior Bowl together. We were roommates, and then we both got drafted here. It’s kind of cool.”
Janis and Abbrederis were two of the Packers' three remaining receivers at the end of a season in which the position was riddled with injuries. If not for the loss to the Cardinals, they could have become unlikely heroes. Maybe they will be one day. Both are young and talented and undoubtedly raw, potential building blocks for the position’s future.
They took separate, winding paths to arrive at the same point in their careers. Janis toiled as a special teams star this season, somehow failing to earn snaps even as the Packers' passing game suffocated. Abbrederis almost didn’t make the team, needing the Packers' preseason finale to earn a spot on the practice squad.
“It was tough,” Abbrederis said of his torn ACL and concussion, injuries that derailed the start of his career. “I appreciated that the coaches kept believing in me. I just kept working and hoping for a chance to come back in some way.”
Now, both youngsters have momentum. Their rise makes for an interesting offseason.
The Packers' receiver position presents a paradox. They didn’t have enough depth to survive Jordy Nelson’s torn ACL in August, crumbling without their All-Pro wideout. The group might have too much depth to be a dire need in this spring’s draft.
First, the lack of depth. When Nelson was placed on injured reserve, it set in motion a domino effect. Davante Adams was thrust into the No. 1 perimeter job before he was ready. Defenses didn’t have to fear a deep threat, so they focused on stopping slot receiver Randall Cobb. James Jones, signed a day before the regular season, became the Packers' top-producing receiver after being cut by two nonplayoff teams last offseason.
That would’ve been a lot to overcome even if injuries hadn’t continued to thin the group after Nelson’s torn ACL, but they did. Adams lost almost four games with an ankle injury. Rookie Ty Montgomery’s season ended with a sprained ankle in Week 6.
Despite the issues, Janis and Abbrederis were stuck to the bottom of the depth chart, unable to establish significant roles on offense.
“They need to earn their opportunities just like every player before them to get on the field quicker,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at his season-ending news conference.
The lack of receiving depth could be seen in numbers.
It was the major factor leading to the Packers' passing game tying for 25th league-wide, their lowest ranking in a non-strike season since 1978. The Packers didn’t have a 900-yard receiver during the regular season. None had 80 catches or more than eight touchdowns.
Even with Nelson returning, the low production was enough to suggest the Packers must spend a high draft pick on a receiver. Except it’s probably not a necessity, because the Packers have too much depth to convince general manager Ted Thompson to spend a first- or second-round pick on the position.
It might not have been a lack of talent that doomed the Packers' receiver position in 2015. Instead, that talent clearly was young and unready. There isn’t much of a difference in the final result — a dismal season for the Packers' passing game with few alternatives — but it could impact the offseason approach.
The quartet of Janis, Abbrederis, Montgomery and Adams loads the Packers' depth chart with developmental talent. All four of them could land on the spectrum between bust and starter.
“There’s going to be a lot of talent,” Abbrederis said, “and a lot of good competition. It will make everybody better. We’ll have to see what happens.”
There is some risk if Thompson doesn’t make receiver a top priority this offseason. He would have to assume Nelson returns as something resembling a No. 1 target, which isn’t guaranteed. Nelson will be coming off major knee surgery next season, and at age 31 will be nearing the end of his prime years regardless.
Thompson certainly could use a first- or second-round pick on a receiver. In 2008, Nelson was an unpopular pick when the Packers selected him in the second round. The team already had Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Jones, much more talent than the current depth chart contains. Didn’t matter to Thompson, who traded out of the first round and used his top pick to strengthen a strength.
The Packers' receiving group is not a strength, but it’s perhaps an offseason away from being promising. Beside Nelson, no two players factor more into that promise than Janis and Abbrederis.
“We’ve been working together all last year,” Janis said, “even when he was hurt. We were still in the meeting rooms together. Then this whole year in practice and everything, both of us not getting that many reps, but just knowing that time could come, and we didn’t really know when it would be.
“It’s pretty cool. You wish the best for each other, and to be out there when they were counting on us to make plays, it’s pretty cool.”