GREEN BAY – Jeff Janis never gained traction as a receiver, and he lost his kickoff return job to Trevor Davis last season, but his value to the Green Bay Packers extended beyond social media fame as a fan favorite.
Nobody on the Packers' roster matched Janis’ combination of size (6-3, 219 pounds) and speed (4.42 40). It helped him become their top coverage player on special teams. Janis flourished as a gunner on punts, helping rookie Justin Vogel set a franchise record with a 41.6-yard net average last season.
The Packers will need to replace Janis’ unsung production this fall. After four years in Green Bay, the former seventh-round receiver signed with the Cleveland Browns on Friday.
Janis posted an Instagram photo of him standing with his family in front of a Browns logo, with the hashtag #dawgpound.
Janis is just the latest Packer to join the Browns, a franchise led by former Packers college scouting director John Dorsey. It started when Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith — the Packers' top two executives behind new GM Brian Gutekunst — joined Dorsey’s front office in January. Earlier this month, the Packers traded top cornerback Damarious Randall to Cleveland for backup quarterback DeShone Kizer.
Janis might get a chance as a receiver in Cleveland, but his most prominent role is sure to remain on special teams. While Randall’s production was easier to track — he led the Packers in interceptions last season with four — Janis’ ability to influence field position will be missed.
The Packers ranked sixth in lowest opponent punt return average (5.7 yards) last season, 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.
Janis was a gunner on each of Vogel’s 71 punts, facing a double-team block on more than 40 percent of those snaps. He was first to arrive downfield in coverage 24 times and second 19 times. He only had four tackles, but a review of his punt-coverage snaps showed Janis forced nine fair catches and assisted on seven others.
The Packers must’ve determined they had enough capable gunners ready to be replacements. Receiver Trevor Davis, safety Josh Jones and perhaps cornerback Demetri Goodson could be among the rotation.
Though he isn’t a gunner on punt coverage, Janis’ absence could be an impetus for outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell to remain on the roster. Fackrell, like Janis, hasn’t showed consistent production at his listed position, and the Packers could overhaul their outside linebacker depth chart before the fall. At 6-5, 244 pounds with a 4.72 40, Fackrell might now be the Packers' most impressive package of size and speed.
Fackrell led the Packers with 354 special-teams snaps last season, while Janis was third at 247.
In four years, Janis had 17 regular-season catches on 38 targets for 200 yards and one touchdown coming at Atlanta in 2016.
He’ll be best remembered for two catches near the end of the Packers' divisional-round loss at the Arizona Cardinals in the 2015 NFC playoffs. On fourth-and-20 from their own 4 with 55 seconds left, quarterback Aaron Rodgers found Janis for a 60-yard bomb down the left sideline. Three plays later, Janis caught a 41-yard Hail Mary to push the game into overtime, where the Packers eventually lost.
A season later, Janis was expected to make a leap at receiver. It never happened, but his special-teams contributions made the Packers a better team. Now, they’ll need someone to fill the void.
Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed.