GREEN BAY - The conversation begins with special teams, where for the last two years linebacker Jayrone Elliott entrenched himself as a core member for the Green Bay Packers. He logged 341 snaps for coordinator Ron Zook last season, second only to safety Chris Banjo, and entered training camp with a leadership role as one of the unit’s most valuable players.
Through three weeks of practice, Elliott is pleased with the progress the special teams units have made. He takes pride in joining Banjo, linebacker Joe Thomas, fullback Aaron Ripkowski and cornerbacks Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall as prominent figures in almost every lineup: punt coverage and punt return; kickoff coverage and kickoff return.
“Oakland was a big test for us,” Elliott said of the Packers’ most recent exhibition game against the Raiders. “I like the way we responded.”
But then the conversation shifts to outside linebacker, Elliott’s day job, and from the seat inside his locker Elliott closes his eyes and chuckles, the sound drenched in exasperation.
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Training camp was supposed to be a launching pad for Elliott, who in his first two years produced explosive moments and showed impressive potential. He used his offseason to gain 10 pounds, lower his body-fat percentage and refine his diet. It seemed like the perfect pretense to a more significant role in 2016 — until it wasn't.
Elliott’s invisibility is one of the most puzzling storylines of camp for the Packers, whose depth at outside linebacker, at least on paper, is staggering. He is 0-11 in the one-on-one pass rush drill. He has zero tackles for loss in the first two exhibition games. He has only three tackles overall. The time to secure a roster spot is fading, and Elliott, baffled by his apparent regression, knows he needs a spark.
“Uh, it’s been all right,” Elliott said Monday of his work as an edge rusher. “I don’t know. I’ve just got to keep fighting and try to get my niche back. I feel like it’s been a year since I’ve had a sack or even been in the backfield. Got to continue to fight and continue to just work on my craft.”
The maddening part for Elliott is the absence of explanation. Two years ago, Elliott exploded for five sacks during the exhibition season to vault onto the roster as an undrafted free agent from Toledo. Last year, in Week 2 of the regular season, Elliott forced two turnovers against Seattle. The second turnover was an interception of quarterback Russell Wilson and secured a victory in the closing minutes.
The knock on Elliott was always the infrequency of his production. Last season was a prime example: Elliott had two sacks and an interception in the first three games last season; he finished the year with three sacks and never forced another turnover.
This year, even the flash plays have vanished.
“Me, I’m the type of guy that if something goes bad or something goes good, I flush it the next day and try to just continue to work,” Elliott said. “Some things are harder than others, but at the end of the day I always have the mindset of just flush it, just flush it, move on, move on.”
On film, Elliott sees the same player from the past two seasons. When asked if the added weight has been detrimental, Elliott points out that he played well during OTAs and minicamp. He swears he isn't hurt. He hasn't missed a practice during training camp.
“It’s all mental,” he said. “All mental.”
Barring an improvement in the final two exhibition games, Elliott will likely find himself on the roster bubble. There are four outside linebackers who are virtual locks to make the team: Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Nick Perry and Datone Jones. Rookie Kyler Fackrell, a third-round pick, should be considered a good bet based on general manager Ted Thompson's past commitment to drafted players. That leaves Elliott, Lerentee McCray and undrafted free agent Reggie Gilbert fighting for an undetermined number of spots.
Elliott's fallback is special teams, where Zook and coach Mike McCarthy routinely praise his production, effort and leadership. At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Elliott ran the 40-yard dash in 4.77 seconds coming out of college in 2014. His measurables are hard to match in a phase of the game where the majority of players are smaller and faster.
The special teams player most capable of matching Elliott's physical traits is McCray, who stands 6-foot-2, weighs 246 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.80 seconds. It's possible that McCray is Elliott's biggest competition for a roster spot as well.
“Just continue to work,” Elliott said. “One of the hardest things to do in this business is to handle success. Just try to go out there and compete and do what I can do to make the team better.”