GREEN BAY – Jeff Janis is stumbling more than running. Feet are twisted. Hands locked with a cornerback.
This is the first catch of his NFL career. A 9-yard reception against the Minnesota Vikings in 2014. Janis remembers the shallow slant route well.
He does not remember it fondly.
“You just look at it,” Janis said, “and you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that was the worst route ever.’ But you catch it, and you’re just like, ‘OK, let’s just move on. Let’s not even look at that again.’”
He is the most tantalizing Green Bay Packer. The raw prospect who arrived as a blank canvas three seasons ago. Jeff Janis was big, tall, strong and fast when the Packers drafted him in the seventh round.
He wasn’t a polished wide receiver.
The difference was often confusing. Each time Janis played an ample amount of snaps, it seemed, he only showed he should play more.
There were two touchdown catches in his first preseason.
Two catches for 79 yards against the San Diego Chargers last fall.
Seven catches for 145 yards — and two Hail Marys — in the playoffs.
The numbers were fool’s gold. Underneath, Janis remained raw. Underdeveloped. Unready.
So, no, he never sulked. Never became bitter when teammates took his snaps.
“I try to avoid any type of thinking like that,” Janis said. “I truly believe the people we have as coaches and upstairs are smarter than me as far as who they want where. Whatever they want me to do, I’m down to do it. When my number is called, I’ll be ready.”
His number was called three weeks ago.
When injuries depleted the Packers backfield, coach Mike McCarthy adjusted. His radical transition to a spread passing attack featuring four- and five-receiver sets meant Janis was no longer stashed on special teams.
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Janis’ role blossomed against the Dallas Cowboys. He played 32 snaps, caught both passes quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw to him. Four days later, Janis played 40 snaps and caught two more passes against the Chicago Bears.
The Packers had no choice but to play Janis last week. Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb were out, and Davante Adams was needed in the backfield. Janis played 58 snaps against the Falcons and caught all four passes Rodgers threw to him. One was a go-ahead 7-yard score on third-and-4 in the fourth quarter, the first regular-season touchdown of his career.
Janis said he won’t forget his quarterback’s reaction.
“He was pretty jacked,” Janis said. “He kind of smacked me on the chest, I think, once. He was pretty excited, and it was a cool moment. Any time you can score on something like that, it’s huge confidence-wise, trust-wise for Aaron and the coaches. It kind of opens their eyes a little bit.
“Just to see him react that way, it just kind of gives you that feeling, I guess, where in the back of your mind, you know that he’s going to throw me the ball if he really needs to. He’s going to trust me to make a play.”
In the past, Janis’ name could elicit eye rolls from teammates. They see the media attention, the fans begging over social media for him to play more snaps. They also knew — as did Janis — that the 6-foot-3, 219-pound receiver with 4.4 speed wasn’t ready.
Janis fell into his new role on offense out of necessity. The Packers were too injured, too desperate to ignore him. They had to get creative.
In their first four games this season, Janis played a total of 16 snaps. He’s played at least 45 percent of the Packers' snaps each of the past three games, spiking at 94 percent in Atlanta.
The steady increase isn’t by accident. Over time, Janis learned how to become a receiver. Recently, he has caught his quarterback’s eye.
Rodgers was asked this week how much growth he has seen from Janis’ route-running, an open-ended question he could’ve taken anywhere.
“A lot,” Rodgers said. “I really do think a lot.”
It’s the piece that’s always been missing, despite Janis’ production.
The former Division II star had to learn it isn’t enough in the NFL to simply run fast. Receivers must run open, and that requires more precision than speed.
“Ultimately,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said, “it’s about as a route runner, creating separation. You see some of the areas that he’s certainly improved at the break point, creating more separation. And then, ultimately, it’s about results. Going up and making a play and catching the football.”
The results have remained. In the past three games, Janis snagged each of the eight catchable passes Rodgers threw him. There have been three incompletions: a pass thrown out of bounds, a batted ball at the line of scrimmage and a play where Janis appeared to run into a linebacker.
His production might not jump off the stat sheet. No, he hasn't had double-digit catches in consecutive games like Adams. Janis’ eight catches this season have yielded only 53 yards, an average of 6.6 yards per catch.
But big plays never have been Jeff Janis’ problem. Boring or not, he needs consistency.
“Any time you know what you’re doing,” receivers coach Luke Getsy said, “you can play a little faster, a little bit more physical, and I think that’s as evident as anything, that Jeff has a pretty good understanding of what we’re doing now on offense anywhere he lines up. I think that, as much as anything, helps you.”
Don’t call him a “polished” receiver. He is still rough. Less clumsy, but Janis warns he might never be a finished product.
Regardless, Janis feels more comfortable. He echoed Rodgers this week, saying he has “gotten a lot better” running routes. It’s what Janis is doing at the end of those routes that’s winning his quarterback’s trust.
“It all comes down to just making plays when the ball is thrown your way,” Janis said. “That’s pretty much the biggest thing. If you make plays when the ball comes your way, it’s going to come your way more. That’s the one thing I try to focus on most.”