Special teams star Jayrone Elliott is set to prove his worth on Packers defense

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Linebacker Jayrone Elliott joined the Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2014.

GREEN BAY - If football players were defined by quintessential moments that described their careers, the CliffsNotes for outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott would constitute a tease. It would begin with a breakthrough of speed and athleticism — ending, perhaps, in an important sack or forced fumble — and it would end with a regression toward something mundane.

Though Elliott has been with the Green Bay Packers since 2014, when he made the team as an undrafted free agent from Toledo, the process of applying his physical tools with any semblance of regularity remains a work in progress. He is one of the best special teams players the Packers have, but his inconsistent production on defense has been puzzling. For the better part of two years he’s dealt with reporters asking the same question: Is this the season when you finally put it all together?

“I know you guys got stories to write, you got stuff to put out,” Elliott said during training camp. “It’s y’all job, and I would never discredit y’all job. And I’ll give you guys a straight-up answer: I’m waiting to break out. Hopefully this is the year.”

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The Packers are counting on it. When general manager Ted Thompson decided to let veteran pass rushers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones depart in free agency this past off-season, the underlying message was a strong vote of confidence for Elliott and Kyler Fackrell, a third-round pick in 2016. They are the players tasked with supplementing starters Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, who cannot shoulder the burden alone.

To lessen their stress, Elliott will need to rewrite the early script of his career. He must justify his reputation as a pass-rush specialist and quiet the critics who question his credentials against the run. He must contribute to the defense on a weekly basis while continuing to thrive on special teams. He must improve on his total of four sacks in the last two seasons. He must be effective while playing a significant number of snaps.

“I’m not in the business of showing nobody anything,” Elliott said. “But as long as I’m helping the team win and we can reach our ultimate goal, I’ll be happy with that.”

The early returns have been positive. Almost immediately, associate head coach/linebackers Winston Moss said Elliott was showing more stoutness against the run during training camp. Proof arrived in the physical half-line drill when Elliott, who has begun studying film more intensely, blew up tight end Lance Kendricks and sent him crashing into a pulling guard. The running back was decked for a significant loss.

It continued in the first exhibition game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Elliott shed tight end Brent Celek to slice inside and wallop former Wisconsin running back Corey Clement for no gain. He followed with an impressive chase-down tackle of tailback Donnel Pumphrey on a short screen that netted a yard.

“Elliott’s done a real good job this training camp,” Moss said. “I think he’s started out playing with a lot more physicality this training camp. He’s still trying to refine and hone his pass rushing skills, his identity. But I think from just the start you’re looking for and what we’re going to ask him to do this year, he’s off to a good start.”

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His boost in physicality correlates to additional weightlifting sessions during the off-season. Elliott, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 252 pounds, said he always slims down as the season progresses whether he wants to or not. It’s a natural byproduct of continuous exercise.

But by starting training camp stronger and a bit heavier — Elliott is visibly broader through the shoulders and chest — he is hoping to maintain a comfortable playing weight for the regular season and beyond.

“I feel stronger,” Elliott said. “I’m doing a great job of getting extra lifts in, make sure I’m keeping my protein coming in, make sure I’m keeping my weight up.”

He’s coupled the physical refinements with an added emphasis on film study. The best outside linebackers are adept at reading triangles before and during each play. Their eyes flit from the offensive tackle to the running back to the quarterback in search of clues about what’s to come. It’s this heightened football acuity that separates decent outside linebackers from great ones.

“I don’t really sit there and say, ‘I can’t play the run, I can’t play the run,’ ” Elliott explained. “I just try to go out there and make plays (because) I know in the back of my mind sacks bring racks (of cash).

“At first I was taking more chances on sacks than keying on the run, so that’s probably why people say I can’t play the run as well. As I’m getting older I’m starting to learn that you have to let the game come to you. You can’t chase plays. Plays will be there to be made.”

The Packers are counting on it.


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