Jahri Evans out to prove he’s still at ‘elite level’

Ryan Wood
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Green Bay Packers guard Jahri Evans (73) stretches during organized team activities  Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

GREEN BAY - There was a time Jahri Evans couldn’t picture life outside The Big Easy. All the great ones get there, a false sense of invincibility. Evans was a perennial Pro Bowler, the foundation of his offensive line, once the highest-paid guard in NFL history.

He planned to retire a New Orleans Saint.

Then age got in the way. The Saints restocked their offensive line with younger, cheaper players. They tried moving on from Evans a year ago, but brought him back for an 11th season.

By the end of 2016, Evans sensed a looming expiration date with the Saints. But he wasn’t finished. Preferring to continue his career at an age when retirement was an option, Evans could afford to be picky with his next team.

“I was just waiting on a phone call from a team like Green Bay,” Evans said. “They came calling, and I came, and it worked out well. I wasn’t going to play for a team that didn’t have a chance to win. I would rather just wait until somebody that had a chance to win needed me.”

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He’ll get a chance in Green Bay. Didn’t hurt that the Packers had a flashing, neon sign pointing to their right guard vacancy. Evans signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract one day before the draft to replace T.J. Lang, the Packers' departed Pro Bowl guard.

Someone with Evans’ pedigree might find it more manageable than a rookie to replace Lang. Evans, a six-time Pro Bowler, steps into a major void in the Packers' locker room, not just the offensive line. Lang wasn’t just one of three NFC guards voted to the Pro Bowl last season. His toughness and personality made him a natural leader, casting a shadow in his absence.

But if experience might aid Evans’ transition, production ultimately will decide whether he’s successful. At the onset of organized team activities, nobody knows quite what to expect. Evans, who turns 34 in August, is the Packers' oldest offensive lineman — by almost six years. When he was drafted in 2006, center Corey Linsley still was a couple months from his 15th birthday.

“He brings some veteran leadership,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He’s a presence. He’s a big human, and he’s played at a high level for a long time, and I appreciate his attitude. He’s a laid-back, easy-going guy, but he gets on the field and he’s a mauler. He gets after guys and competes.

“I think he’s kind of got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder at this point in his career, knowing he can still play and felt like he didn’t get a lot of love and respect last year. We’re really happy to have him.”

Evans doesn’t back down from admitting there’s something to prove. He’s a former fourth-round pick, the product of Bloomsburg University, a Division II school in Pennsylvania. That chip, Evans said, has been on his shoulder more than a decade.

You could see it Tuesday. Evans freely shared his credentials. More than once, he mentioned the Saints ranking atop the NFL in yards last season. He has spent 11 seasons blocking for Drew Brees, so protecting Rodgers won’t be anything new.

“I think I’m still playing at an elite level,” Evans said. “Obviously, I’m a little bit older, but coming from New Orleans we were still the No. 1 offense last year, threw the ball more than anybody. We only had 27 sacks (sixth fewest in the NFL), so those numbers speak for themselves. I’m here trying to bring that success to this team, to Green Bay.”

For a player unaccustomed to change, Evans will find some familiarity with the Packers. A couple seasons ago, the Saints started transitioning to a zone-blocking scheme similar to the Packers’ system. In Green Bay, same as New Orleans, Evans will be in a pass-first offense. Both the Packers and Saints finished among the NFL’s top five in pass attempts last season.

The biggest difference might be Rodgers’ mobility. Brees set passing records with the Saints, but in his late 30s, he was a statue in the pocket. His 358 rushing yards in 11 seasons in New Orleans are 11 fewer than Rodgers (369) ran for in 2016 alone.

In New Orleans, a scrambling quarterback was a mistake. In Green Bay, it could lead to some of the biggest plays. Evans said his fellow line mates already have told him to expect to hold blocks longer with Rodgers.

“He knows that,” Linsley said. “I think everybody in the NFL knows that. He’s ready to do it. If there’s one thing that he excels at, I think he’s an excellent, elite pass blocker.”

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The Packers weren’t strangers to Evans, either. Coach Mike McCarthy and his staff bumped into him at the Pro Bowl. “Hell of a football player,” McCarthy called Evans on Tuesday. He said he long has admired Evans’ toughness.

Evans isn’t blinded by that chip on his shoulder. There’s a big difference between confidence and cocky. When offensive line coach James Campen met Evans on his free-agent visit to Green Bay, he said the veteran’s humility was what struck him.

“The biggest thing that he wanted out of a coach was someone to coach him,” Campen said. “He was not one of those type of guys that says, ‘Look, I’ve done all this stuff. Here’s my technique, and this is what I’m going to do. Or, I would like to do it this way.’ He is very open, and he specifically said that. He said, ‘Listen, I want to be coached. I want to be coached like the rest of the guys. What I did in the past is what I did in the past.’

“So it makes it a lot easier for a coach to coach someone like that. He has to fit in just like everyone else, and is accountable to his position. His requirement is to fill the expectations of the right guard of the Green Bay Packers. That’s not going to change whether you’re a four-time All-Pro like himself, or a new kid coming in. It’s very simple.”

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