The new Jeff Janis? Rookie WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling turning heads as gunner on punts
GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers weren’t sure how they were going to replace Jeff Janis’ impact at the gunner position on punt coverage.
Then they were forced to use rookie receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling there after cutting candidates Demetri Goodson, Quinten Rollins and Josh Hawkins at the end of training camp and found out he might be every bit as good as his predecessor.
They certainly got that clue when he almost single-handedly shut down Washington’s return game Sunday.
Valdes-Scantling was the first one down on four of punter JK Scott’s five punts, forcing two fair catches, downing one on the 2-yard line and tackling returner Greg Stroman for a 9-yard gain on another. Scott averaged 44.6 yards in net average, giving up just the one return and owing a debt of gratitude to his fellow rookie.
It was the same kind of performance Janis gave the Packers on punt returns the past couple of seasons.
“I don’t know if he’s Jeff Janis’ replacement, but he did a nice job,” special teams coach Ron Zook said. “I was happy. I was proud of him. You like to see a guy have success like that.”
At 6-4, 206 pounds, Valdes-Scantling ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, so he was a good fit for a job in which the main duties are running as fast as you can down the field.
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If it were an easy job, however, there would be a lot of players who are good at it. While it might seem perfect for a wide receiver given the need to get off the line of scrimmage quickly, Valdes-Scantling said there’s no carryover from one to the other.
“It’s totally different,” he said.
The main difference is that when running routes as a receiver, he’s trying to get to a point on the field in a prescribed amount of time with the knowledge the ball might be thrown right at his chest. When he’s covering a punt, he’s running from Point A to Point B as fast as he can, doing whatever possible to avoid the jammer on the other side of the line.
Against Washington, Valdes-Scantling was only double-teamed once and Zook had him go in motion so he could get a running start on the two guys trying to slow him down. He beat both down the field and forced a fair catch.
The rest of the day he was single-teamed and he just ran by the competition. No one was able to get a good jam on him at the line of scrimmage or stay step-for-step with him as he ran down the sideline.
“There’s not a lot of guys with my size and speed,” Valdes-Scantling said. “Either they try to be more physical with me or try to double me.”
It has been a learning process for the rookie, whose only work on special teams at South Florida was returns. But he came to the NFL knowing that as a fifth-round pick he wasn’t going to be handed a starting receiver job and the best way to get on the field was through special teams.
Valdes-Scantling said he prepared himself to contribute in any way he could and figured he had the potential to be a gunner because of his speed. He has also gotten some opportunities to return kickoffs, although that hasn’t gone as well as his other job.
“It’s hard for a fifth-round pick to come in and make an impact right away,” he said. “You have to play a role and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Of the three rookie wide receivers, Valdes-Scantling is the only one who hasn’t been inactive through the first three weeks and the only one who has gotten snaps on offense (20). Fourth-round pick J’Mon Moore has not been active for a game yet and sixth-round pick Equanimeous St. Brown has been active for one game.
Valdes-Scantling has one catch for 3 yards. But Zook said he if he keeps playing well on special teams, those numbers could improve.
“I told him after the game, that’s going to help him as a receiver as well,” Zook said. “It gives him confidence. He made some really nice plays. Those are the things you talk about until it happens, then once it happens then hopefully, we can build on those and keep having them.”