GREEN BAY - For college quarterbacks harboring aspirations of turning pro, there are few moments more exhilarating than fielding a phone call on the first or second day of the NFL draft. Massive contract extensions notwithstanding, there is no stronger sign of commitment between organization and player.
Such was the feeling for a 21-year-old DeShone Kizer when his cellphone flickered with an Ohio area code last spring. The Cleveland Browns, owners of a 1-15 record the season prior, had selected Kizer with the 52nd overall pick in the 2017 draft.
“I looked at that season as an opportunity to develop,” Kizer said. “In this league, you can learn one of two ways: by fire or from watching. I was out in the fire and learned quite a bit about myself, a lot about what it takes to win in this league and now it's about making sure that I take those experiences, learn from them and the next time I step back out there on an NFL field during the regular season that I'm in a better position to win a game.”
As a rookie, Kizer won the starting job in training camp and started 15 of 16 games in the regular season, losing them all. Strong performances like a narrow loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers (314 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, 98.5 passer rating) were offset by seven games with two or more interceptions, and ultimately Browns general manager John Dorsey decided Kizer was worth parting with. He dealt the former Notre Dame quarterback to the Packers for cornerback Damarious Randall and an exchange of mid-round draft picks shortly before the start of free agency in March.
And suddenly, in the form of another phone call, Kizer’s career was rerouted.
“Very surprised,” Kizer said. “It was a pretty good offseason in which I was along a path that was set up by one GM, one head coach. Within that process, you get a random call that you're going to be shipped off to a new city. But after quickly getting over those initial emotions of shock, it became an awesome opportunity that I saw in front of myself to come here and learn as much as I possibly can and develop into a better quarterback.”
SILVERSTEIN: Will Brian Gutekunst keep upgrading Packers' roster?
With the trade to the Packers came a revision to Kizer’s career arc. Had he remained in Cleveland, where Dorsey used this year’s No. 1 overall pick to draft Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, it’s likely Kizer would have competed for the starting job, perhaps affording the coaching staff some extra time with Mayfield before tossing him to the wolves. But in Green Bay, where nobody will dethrone Aaron Rodgers, Kizer is competing for both a backup job and, more pressingly, a spot on the 53-man roster.
“It's different,” Kizer said. “You go from experiencing a lot of success in college to walking into a league as a 21-year-old that experienced some success right away, getting thrown out there as a starter, and now I need to figure out how to become a good backup in this league. Obviously, this is a situation in which I need to be doing whatever I can to help this 2018 team get to wins.
“When you have one of the better quarterbacks to ever throw a football sitting two lockers down, I think it would be a big responsibility of mine to do whatever I can to help him. We'll see how that works.”
From a competitive standpoint, Kizer is the primary adversary of Brett Hundley in a battle for the No. 2 spot on the Packers’ depth chart. Kizer and Hundley will compete for reps during organized team activities, minicamp and training camp as coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Brian Gutekunst seek some level of stability behind Rodgers, who missed a large chunk of the 2017 season after suffering a broken collarbone in mid-October.
It’s possible Gutekunst is evaluating a one-on-one competition between the two quarterbacks for a single roster spot. There is certainly precedent for keeping three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster — former GM Ted Thompson kept Rodgers, Hundley and undrafted rookie Joe Callahan in 2016 — but it seems unlikely in a year when the Packers are overflowing at cornerback (11 as of this week) and wide receiver (11).
“He's very eager,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “Even in Phase 1 (of the offseason program), in that phase where we didn't even get on the field, you liked the way he kind of handles himself. I liked him in the meeting room. (I) was in the quarterback room with him a little bit and the unit room. He's attentive, he's bright, he's very, very hardworking.
“So I think so far, in a new system for him, and it's been, what, five weeks into I guess, I like the development I've seen. Even just the way he's attacked it in terms of putting in the extra time to learn the adjustments of the offense, not just the primary way, but maybe the secondary adjustments that go with a lot of plays in the system. I think he's off to a really good start.”
For all of the Hundley-against-Kizer discussion that is likely to hover into September — or perhaps beyond if both players make the team — it’s fourth-string quarterback Tim Boyle who most closely mirrors Kizer from a learning standpoint, given both players are new to the organization. Hundley, who was drafted by the Packers in 2015, has three seasons of footwork, fundamentals and football in McCarthy’s offense, whereas Kizer and Boyle, an undrafted rookie from Eastern Kentucky and Connecticut, have been in Green Bay for a matter of weeks.
That is not to suggest, however, that Kizer and Boyle are of equal NFL talent and experience because that’s clearly untrue. Rather, it’s an important piece of context when monitoring Kizer’s progression through the Packers’ quarterback school, a program from which Hundley has already graduated. In addition to competing with Hundley, who left much to be desired in his starting experience last season, Kizer is maneuvering in a program that will deconstruct his mechanics and rebuild them to follow the blueprint McCarthy and his staff have outlined across multiple decades.
Kizer is no longer a rookie, but the learning curve remains fairly steep.
“After being here for almost two months now, it's obvious why quarterbacks come here and leave much better than when they came here,” Kizer said. “This QB school, coach McCarthy and the system that he's put together and then this amazing coaching staff that he's been able to put together over this past year have done an awesome job with defining some of the things within the game that quite frankly I didn't even know about.
“As most people know, quarterbacking is all about footwork. Here, they teach you a different style of footwork that I think has turned into a lot of success for a lot of guys. Now it's about me doing whatever I can to buy into that footwork, figure out how to perfect it as much as I can and hopefully get myself ready as fast as possible.”