GREEN BAY - There were some surprises in store for Ricky Jean Francois when the veteran defensive tackle hit the NFL free-agent market in March.
Jean Francois expected to attract interest after eight solid seasons in San Francisco, Indianapolis and Washington. What he didn’t expect was to hear from a franchise he presumed to be allergic to free agency.
“To get that phone call that the Green Bay Packers want you is rare,” said Jean Francois, who landed a one-year deal that could earn him $3 million. “It’s rare that you see them go outside and pick guys up and if they do, it’s for a reason.
"On the first day of meetings when all the new guys stand up, I’m used to seeing like five or six guys stand up and there were only three guys to stand up. I’m blessed to get picked up.’”
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Jean Francois, who has 12 sacks and 153 tackles in 109 career regular-season games, was an under-the-radar addition. He made just seven starts for Washington in 2016 and understands his role likely will be to provide depth, particularly with Letroy Guion's future uncertain after a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drugs policy and a recent arrest in Hawaii on a DUI charge.
Jean Francois (6-foot-2½, 313 pounds) said his free-agency decision came down to either Seattle or Green Bay, “and I had to pick here — I’ve got a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers. Just seeing a quarterback like him year in and year out be so successful … he’s been so consistent getting to the playoffs.”
The Packers have reached the playoffs in all eight of the seasons Jean Francois has been in the NFL, a string of success matched only by the New England Patriots. Jean Francois has made five postseason trips, two of which included games against Green Bay (the Packers’ divisional-round loss to the 49ers in 2012 and a wild-card win at Washington in 2015).
At age 30, Jean Francois also was surprised when he learned of the relative youth of his new defensive line mates and 2016 draft picks Kenny Clark (21) and Dean Lowry (23), in particular. Having been tutored by Justin Smith and Ray McDonald under renowned defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in San Francisco, Jean Francois wants to pass along his knowledge.
“When I came in, all I wanted to do was just smarten ‘em up,” Jean Francois said. “Learn how to use your speed, learn how to use your agility, look at formations. Look at different things that can make the game a lot (easier).”
Mike Daniels, the vocal leader of the Packers’ defensive line, welcomed the addition of a durable veteran (only six games missed over the past seven seasons) who “plays with a mean streak” and has a distinguished pedigree.
“Ricky, he just comes from such a strong defensive coach over there in San Francisco,” Daniels said, referring to Fangio. “Those guys, they were big, they were mean, tough and nasty. But they played together. I think with the guys we have here, that’s really something that’s growing as well, some true leadership on our side of the ball, and a little more true ownership and guys that want to be the best. And that’s something I think he’s brought over here, just that mentality.
“He’s good for our room and he does things the right way. He shows the young guys the ropes.”
Clark, labeled by coach Mike McCarthy as one of the team’s “most improved” players during the offseason program, said he already is benefitting from Jean Francois’ presence.
“Just the knowledge and taking my game to the next level as far as the mental part of it,” Clark said. “Every time I’m doing something, he’s always encouraging, always telling me how I can get better at it.
“After almost every meeting, you’ll catch me and Ricky talking about something to do with football. … I just want to hear it from a guy who’s done it as long as he has.”
Off the field, Jean Francois wants no surprises. That has led him to not only take good care of his money but also search for ways to make it grow.
A self-taught entrepreneur, Jean Francois bought a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in Savannah, Ga., soon after signing a lucrative free-agent deal with the Colts in 2013 and now owns 25 of them throughout Georgia and South Carolina.
“We can’t play this game forever,” said Jean Francois, a seventh-round pick in 2009 out of LSU (where he played for the 2007 national champions). “So your career ends and your football-playing identity is gone. What you going to do now, what are you going to fall back on?
“That NFL money ain’t going to last forever. In my case, as soon as I signed with Indy, I don’t want to keep looking at my account and seeing ‘withdrawal.’ I want to see a large amount of deposits. So as long as I can keep those deposits going, I’m going to keep expanding, expanding, expanding.
“Then when I got 25 Dunkin’ Donuts, I just looked at it like, ‘OK, I’m happy.’ But I’m not satisfied yet.”
Jean Francois said he hopes to own 50 Dunkin’ Donuts franchises before he quits playing football. Why Dunkin’ Donuts?
“Doughnuts, ain’t nobody passing up,” he said with a laugh. “Coffee is like the No. 1 drug in the world!”
Looking ahead, Jean Francois knows exactly how many seasons he hopes to play before becoming a full-time businessman.
“You give me 13 and I’m out,” the eight-year veteran said. “At 13, I’m walking out the door and calling it a day and then I’m going to turn all my attention to my businesses and my family. …
“I had a guy tell me one time, ‘You know the difference between a check you have to get from football and a check that comes in the mailbox? You gotta come here and work for it every day. The mailbox, you just see it come in and walk over and open it. Yeah, I made another six figures today.’
“I want both checks to be coming in like that, and both to keep coming. And then when it’s time for me to walk away, I still have this other income coming in. And I’m not trying to spend it, I’m just trying to grow it as large as it can go."