Packers must put price on Jeff Janis' value as gunner
GREEN BAY – There are all kinds of metrics to determine the value of a guy who throws, catches or carries the ball.
Ditto for guys who cover receivers, tackle runners and sack quarterbacks.
But as the Green Bay Packers get closer to making decisions on which unrestricted free agents to keep and how much to spend on them, they won’t be able to assess receiver Jeff Janis in a typical way.
How exactly do you determine the worth of a guy whose primary job it is to pinball through an obstacle course of undetermined length and force the opposition to pass on a chance to advance the ball?
The Packers know that Janis, whose contract expires in March, has developed into one of the NFL’s better gunners on their punt-coverage unit even if there aren’t league-wide statistics to prove it.
They know it because in two of the last three seasons they have set franchise records for net punting average.
Figuring out what that is worth is another matter.
Punters Tim Masthay (40.3 in 2015) and Justin Vogel (41.6 in ’17) both deserve credit for setting new net punting marks, especially Vogel, whose gross average of 44.4 tied for seventh best in franchise history.
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But Masthay was cut the next summer and special teams coach Ron Zook often spoke of Vogel’s inconsistency in his first season as punter.
“(Vogel) has done a good job, don’t get me wrong,” Zook said late in the season. “But so have the guys around him in terms of our gunners. I mean, that is so critical with us being able to get down there and hold the returns to a minimum. We’ve played some pretty good returners this year.”
Often, it was Janis to the rescue.
The 6-3, 219-pound receiver was a gunner on all 71 of Vogel’s punts. A review of those punts showed that Janis faced at least two defenders 30 times, sometimes receiving a double-team at the line of scrimmage and sometimes facing one player at the line and another who peeled off to block him further down the field.
Of those 71 punts, Janis was the first one down in coverage 24 times and forced nine fair catches. He was the second one down 19 times and assisted in forcing seven other fair catches.
When receiver Trevor Davis replaced safety Josh Jones as the other gunner, the punt coverage improved considerably. Jones and Davis both benefited from the double-teams Janis was receiving, but Jones’ frequent penalties hurt the unit and Davis’ speed was difficult for one blocker to handle.
“I think the combination of our gunners and our punters has been why we’ve been so successful in coverage,” said Janis, choosing to spread the credit around. “We have to punt it well and we have to cover it well and we’ve just had a good combination the last couple of years.”
The Packers finished the season ranked sixth in lowest opponent punt return average (5.7 yards), allowing just 40.8 percent of Vogel’s punts to be returned. Of those not returned, 57.1 percent were the result of a fair catch.
The longest punt return allowed was 28 yards.
None of it meant all that much in a 7-9 season, but it might have meant a lot more had quarterback Aaron Rodgers been healthy the entire year. And it would mean a great deal more if new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine can turn the defense around in 2018.
But again, how much is it worth?
“It’s a huge change in field position,” Janis said. “If you’re struggling on punt, it can make (a difference with) your offense and your defense. It’s all a field-position game and so I mean maybe if a team really wants to get better at punt, maybe they’re looking for gunners.
“You just never know. We’ll see what happens.”
Janis didn’t just serve as a gunner on special teams. He returned kickoffs in the early part of the season and covered kickoffs. He played 249 special teams snaps (59.3 percent) and finished third on the team in tackles with six.
As much as some might want to deem Janis the best at what he does, the fact is half the teams in the NFL have at least one very good gunner. A half dozen of those gunners will be competing with Janis for free-agent dollars.
The gold standard for special teams players has been New England’s Matthew Slater, who missed seven games because of a hamstring injury in 2017 and is 32. He just completed a deal that averaged $1.8 million.
His teammate, Johnson Bademosi, filled in successfully for Slater after being acquired from Detroit for a sixth-round pick and was averaging $2.25 million in the last year of his deal. He played just 20.5 percent of New England’s defensive snaps and 62 percent of their special teams snaps.
Chicago’s Sherrick McManus is another top gunner who is set to become a free agent. He was averaging $1.425 million per year to play just special teams. Detroit safety Don Carey, another excellent gunner set to become free, made $1.35 million serving almost exclusively on special teams.
Arizona cornerback Justin Bethel has been an outstanding special teams player and also has played a significant amount of snaps on defense. Last year, he took a pay cut to $2 million in exchange for voiding the 2018 contract year.
Though his four years, Janis has not proven to be reliable as a wide receiver despite his blazing speed. Save for his pair of Hail Mary catches in a playoff loss to Arizona in January of 2016, he has made little impact, catching 17 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown in 51 regular-season games.
After playing just 50 snaps on offense last season – 30 of them in the meaningless season finale at Detroit – he would like to be given a chance to show he can succeed at more than special teams. There might be a team out there that thinks he can be a contributor on offense.
“I think I’d like to play a little more receiver,” Janis said. “I think I have more to offer a team being able to play receiver as well. It’s just going to be a numbers game trying to find what’s the best fit.”
For the Packers, Janis is a known commodity. Even if they don’t believe he can play receiver, they know what kind of impact he can have on special teams. Now they must decide at what price they can afford him.