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GREEN BAY – Jahri Evans stood in his black Wigwam socks on the fringe of Ray Nitschke Field’s grass, ripped cleats on the ground.
He was mostly amused, partly anxious. This was an unfamiliar scene, Evans standing off to the side while his teammates practiced combination blocks. Since arriving this spring, the Green Bay Packers right guard has missed very few reps. Evans’ work ethic, maybe before anything else, was what impressed his new team.
Early in camp, offensive line coach James Campen asked Evans if he wanted a breather. The 12th-year pro turns 34 next week. In a league that abides seniority, on a team that respects experience, Evans’ four All-Pro selections means he can have as much rest in camp as he needs.
Evans shrugged off his position coach.
“I said, ‘I might try to take some reps off you,’” Campen recalled. “He said, ‘Coach, I’m a worker. You do what you think you need to do.’ I said, ‘OK.’ Then you go see Bryan (Bulaga). Bryan’s like, ‘No, I want to get work with him.’
“So he hasn’t had very many reps off.”
Then his right cleat ripped Wednesday.
Evans stepped hard – but not that hard – with his right foot while mimicking a combination block beside center Corey Linsley. The sole on his right cleat tore away from the shoe, like two paddles clacking against each other. Evans stood there bemused watching the drill for about 10 minutes while trainers retrieved a new pair of size 16 Nikes before rejoining practice.
“I’m a big sweater,” Evans reasoned back at his locker after practice. “So it probably just loosened up the glue, and trying to dry them, it just gave out.”
There’s a reason Evans hasn’t missed many snaps. His plate is full this summer, adjusting to a new playbook, new offensive line, new quarterback. On what was among the NFL’s top pass-blocking units last season, Evans is a wild card.
How well he replaces departed Pro Bowl right guard T.J. Lang will go a long way to deciding whether the Packers' offensive line will be among the league’s best units again.
Evans hasn’t handled much change in his career. He was drafted in the fourth round 11 years ago, joining the New Orleans Saints the same year they altered the course of their franchise by signing quarterback Drew Brees. Evans participated in the Seattle Seahawks training camp last August, but was released.
Otherwise, Evans spent each of his 11 seasons with the Saints. In that time, he played beside two starting right tackles: Jon Stinchcomb and Zach Strief. In 169 career games, Brees was his quarterback 168 times.
Bulaga, the third starting right tackle in Evans' career, has played beside only two starting guards in his six seasons: Lang and Josh Sitton.
“You get used to a way one guy plays,” Bulaga said, “and when you’re used to that, then you come and play next to a new guy, you have to change things up a little bit, try to accommodate each other. You’ve got to meet in the middle a little bit.”
In Evans’ first practices with the Packers, Campen said the veteran guard made it clear he wanted to be coached, rather than resting on his reputation. Evans spent a career using certain techniques in New Orleans, but an offensive line’s strength is its cohesion, five players moving in unison. So Evans said he has adjusted his approach to meet the Packers’ style, melding into the group.
Evans said much of his time in camp has been spent synchronizing footwork with Bulaga and Linsley. There’s an unspoken rhythm linemen find when they’ve spent years together. They understand where their teammate will be. The best are able to match their motions without communicating, especially necessary to deal with loud crowds on the road.
It requires plenty of side conversations for new offensive linemen to get their timing down.
“The biggest thing,” Evans said, “is I’m trying to mold to these guys. They’ve done a great job in pass pro and what they’re doing. You’ll see us on the sideline talking through things, and he’s showing me some of the things that he’s doing, and I’m telling him what I’m looking at and what I’m trying to accomplish. It’s basically just that communication, because when you’re out there, it’s just muscle memory.
“Having those reps and those situations are critical, especially during this time. So it’s not the first time you’re doing it, in a game.”
Evans was versed in Bulaga’s play style before signing as a free agent before the draft. Because the Saints were a pass-heavy team much like the Packers, putting additional stress on an offensive line’s protection, Evans and Strief watched film of the Packers' offensive line in New Orleans.
That doesn’t mean they imitated everything they saw on film. Blocking for Aaron Rodgers is very different than protecting Brees. In New Orleans, Evans said, the offensive line schemed to prevent interior pass rush. With Brees standing only 6-foot, and with limited mobility keeping him in the pocket, linemen were windshield wipers clearing their quarterback’s vision.
Rodgers, two inches taller than Brees, doesn’t stay within the pocket. On an extended play, his launch point can be scattered across the backfield. So while the Packers want to avoid breakdowns with their interior protections, they also must account for Rodgers’ scrambling.
“Drew’s launch point is different than Aaron’s launch point,” Evans said. “Aaron can move around and do a lot of different things, and they get a lot of big plays off of that. So you set based on those things.”
Evans hasn’t blocked for Rodgers in a game yet. He doesn’t know if that will change Saturday in Washington, but the Packers' second preseason scrimmage will be an important step. Even without the intensity of a regular-season game, it will be the first time Evans and Bulaga mimic their movements on the road, honing their nonverbal communication.
Whenever Rodgers joins the Packers' starting offense, he’ll see firsthand how much further Evans has to transition. Early in camp, Rodgers said he has been impressed with Evans’ reactionary athleticism as a pass blocker, and his strength moving defensive tackles as a run blocker.
“I think he kind of has a chip on his shoulder, too,” Rodgers said. “I'm not going to speak for him – you know, he's never said this – but it seems as if last year was tough for him being a veteran and not feeling like he really had a home. We've kind of embraced him here and made him feel comfortable being part of this family, and I think he's going to flourish for us.”