Undrafted rookies Jackson, Burks running down divergent paths
After the Green Bay Packers returned from their final exhibition game against Kansas City on Sept. 1, dozens of players sneaked away for a long weekend as coaches and executives worked together in crafting the 53-man roster.
For those assured of making the team — namely veterans and high draft picks — the time off provided a final reprieve before the intensity of the regular season. For those straddling the cut line — mostly backups and undrafted rookies — it was better to fight their nerves in the company of family and friends than to do it alone in a lonely hotel or apartment.
Which is why running back Brandon Burks, who signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent, made the two-hour drive from Green Bay to Milwaukee the day after carrying 12 times for 31 yards against the Chiefs. When the deadline came and went, Burks realized he’d made the team.
“I saw it posted that I had made the 53-man roster so I was happy,” Burks said in a telephone conversation last week. “But it was crazy because I was telling my friend during the day Saturday that something doesn’t feel right. It shows that I made it, they posted that I made it but something just don’t feel right.
“That Sunday I woke up early and I was talking to one of my teammates, Don Jackson, because they had signed him to the practice squad so he was on his way back. I told him, ‘Well, I’ll see you when you get here.’ And probably not even 10 minutes after I got off the phone with him, they called me and explained that they were going to go in a different direction.”
The Packers had submitted a waiver claim for running back Jhurell Pressley, who was released by the Minnesota Vikings during final cuts. In order to create a roster spot, general manager Ted Thompson released Burks roughly 24 hours after the rookie believed his dream had come true.
Thompson’s decision set in motion a season in which the running back position resembled a temporary work agency. From the time he submitted his original 53-man roster in September to the blowout loss in the NFC championship game in January, Thompson employed seven running backs and one converted wide receiver in the span of five months: Burks, Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Pressley, Knile Davis, Jackson, Christine Michael and Ty Montgomery.
“I think if you just look at the number of runs versus passes,” coach Mike McCarthy said in his season-ending news conference, “that’s clearly probably a reflection of the running back situation and how we had to play.”
A cloud of uncertainty still hovers over the position. Starks has been released and Lacy and Michael will be unrestricted free agents in March.
The only players left are Montgomery, whose switch from receiver to running back seems permanent, and Jackson, who’s likely to return for another look as an exclusive rights free agent.
And it’s the divergent paths of Burks and Jackson that offer a window into life near the fringes of the NFL. Both arrived in Green Bay as undrafted rookies fighting to make the team. Both had a spell on the active roster, though Burks’ stay was brief. Both looked on as injuries left the Packers yearning for a healthy running back in the middle of a playoff push.
But everything else about their debut seasons went in opposite directions. Jackson is expected to come back. Burks was turned away three times.
“Giving 110 percent and finding out your dreams came true, and then a couple of hours later it was taken from you — you’re really confused,” Burks said. “I was heartbroken a little bit, especially because I didn’t know what I did wrong. I felt like I was doing everything right whenever I had the chance from preseason, from the little touches that I did get. I felt like I did everything I could have done to stand out, to be a player that Green Bay could have used this year.”
Seven weeks after final cuts, Burks returned to Green Bay for a tryout on Oct. 25. The Packers had placed Lacy on injured reserve five days prior; Starks underwent minor knee surgery earlier in the month.
The call from the Packers revitalized Burks, a standout at Troy University in Alabama who had begun to question his talent and wondered if his chance at the NFL had come and gone. Reassurance arrived through lengthy conversations with family and friends.
“That’s one of the most heartbreaking things that I felt like I went through as a player,” said Burks, who led the Packers in rushing during the exhibition season with 31 carries for 120 yards (3.9 yards per carry) and a touchdown. “It’s the game of football so I’m not saying it’s Green Bay that I’m mad at, it’s the game of football and things happen.”
When he returned to Green Bay, Burks took the field alongside three defensive backs for the tryout. Burks was pleased with his performance and began to envision a second chance.
Instead, the Packers signed cornerback Keith Baxter to the practice squad. Baxter was released two days later.
“I killed the tryout and then they end up picking a corner,” Burks said. “They told my agent I was in shape but I could have been in a little bit better shape, which it’s sort of hard when you’re the only running back going (in the tryout) and you’re running drill after drill at tempo, tempo, tempo and there’s nobody in front of me to give me a break.
"... I was confused and I had that thought, I was like, ‘I’m not going back. I don’t want to go back. If they call me I’ll just turn it down.’”
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Meanwhile, Jackson had earned a promotion to the active roster after six weeks on the practice squad. Jackson, who ran for 1,079 yards during his senior season at Nevada, had intrigued the coaching staff in May and June with a strong performance in OTAs and minicamp.
Though he was released shortly before training camp with a non-football injury designation — Jackson broke his jaw while working out but did not offer specifics — the Packers prioritized him for their initial practice squad in early September.
Jackson’s promotion coincided with the offensive renaissance triggered by significant injuries to Lacy and Starks. The absence of a featured back rewrote the position’s job description, and players such as Jackson, Davis and Montgomery, who shifted from wide receiver, often were the extras surrounding their protagonist, Aaron Rodgers.
Jackson carried 10 times for 32 combined yards in a three-game stretch from Week 7 to Week 9. The Packers eventually placed him on injured reserve with a foot contusion and Grade 2 sprain of his MCL on Nov. 16.
“I don’t want a million yards, I don’t want a bunch of touchdowns,” Jackson said in a telephone interview last week. “I just want to earn my guys’ trust so that when they call my name, no matter if it’s a big role or a small role, everybody trusts that I will get the job done.’’
While Jackson enjoyed his brief spell on the active roster, Burks broke his vow of avoiding the Packers and returned to Green Bay once more. This time, Thompson signed Burks to the practice squad Nov. 2, one week after his tryout.
Burks understood the third opportunity almost certainly would be his last with the Packers. He made the decision to practice angrily, like his career was on the line, and Burks said the coaches began to notice.
“They brought me back so I thought maybe they found out that I could be a player that they needed,” Burks said. “ … I killed. I practiced even harder. Coaches saying I came back with a chip on my shoulder. I’m working hard and I’m trying because this is a place where I feel like I could start my career off.”
He lasted nine days before the Packers cut him and filled his spot with tight end Beau Sandland. Burks said he was not given an explanation.
“I’m sitting there and the staff is telling me once again that I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m fighting, I’m a good player, (they) love my attitude, blah, blah, blah,” Burks said. “But they’re still not telling me what I’m doing wrong.
“So I got fed up and I was just like — I don’t know if I can keep going back with them calling me and keep cutting me. That’s hard. Football is already hard enough to be stable as it is, so for them calling me, making me go home, not having a job, coming back to them and they cut me, it’s sort of hard to juggle. I was really irritated.”
He would be without a job for more than a month.
Just as he did to start the season, Thompson submitted a waiver claim for a running back in mid-November with the Packers mired in a four-game losing streak.
In flew the hyper-athletic Christine Michael, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Seattle Seahawks, and out went Jackson, who was placed on injured reserve.
“A bunch of stuff basically that I think helped them make the IR decision,” Jackson said. “My body had just gotten beat up so quick.”
Despite the injuries, Jackson was omnipresent for the remainder of the season. He studied film, attended meetings and entrenched himself as a locker-room regular. A genial personality made him a likable figure among peers.
McCarthy described him as a “real fine young man” and spoke confidently about his future contributions. Rodgers praised both Jackson and Montgomery for handling themselves professionally in adverse situations. Their requests for extra meetings on Saturday nights impressed a quarterback known for his attention to detail.
Jackson aimed to carry himself the same way even after being placed on IR.
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“Basically just every time I came to work (I tried to) stay happy, stay upbeat, not be selfish and think about myself,” Jackson said. “I talked to guys like James (Starks) and they were like, ‘Bro, you could have easily just been mad at the world because you’re not playing and you’re hurt. You could have easily done that. But you remained the same person and that brings good vibes into the team.’
“That’s all I tried to do. I didn’t become a cancer, I just wanted to be nothing but a positive influence.”
Jackson’s rookie season culminated with what he described as favorable exit interviews after the NFC Championship Game. The medical staff lifted all restrictions on his injured knee and outlined a program to follow during the off-season. His position coach, Ben Sirmans, said he planned to make sure Jackson’s knowledge of the playbook stays sharp.
“My biggest thing last year was earning everybody’s respect,” Jackson said. “Going through it, I think I’ll be able to get more opportunities with the offseason and OTAs and training camp, so I’m going to be a lot better conditioned than I was last year. I feel like I’m just going to keep putting myself in position to earn my guys’ trust.”
Across the country, Burks will receive a similar opportunity with the New York Jets after ending the season on their 53-man roster.
After Burks' third departure from Green Bay, his list of suitors included the Tennessee Titans and New Orleans Saints, who flew him in for a workout in mid-December.
Hours before taking the field in New Orleans, Burks received a phone call from the Jets. They offered him a guaranteed spot on their practice squad, so off he went to New York.
“It put a little relief like OK, this is my time to build myself back up,” Burks said.
Two weeks later, on Dec. 28, the Jets promoted Burks to the active roster. He had two carries for minus-4 yards in the regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills, but his statistics didn’t matter.
Burks had been released before the regular season began. It took four months, but he finally had reclaimed his dream.
“It felt good,” Burks said. “It made me really think that it ain’t the end for me, you know?”