Packers' defensive lineman Jack Heflin wants to be immovable, from the line, from Green Bay, from football
GREEN BAY — Jack Heflin walked the dog. It was cold, freezing to be accurate, but he needed to get out of the house.
Back at the house, there was a football game on TV and no one to watch it with. Heflin’s family, all visiting from out of town, was at Lambeau Field watching the Green Bay Packers take on the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC divisional-round playoff game.
Heflin was not, despite being a member of the Packers only 24 hours earlier.
The defensive lineman understands why he was cut before the playoff game. As a then-rarely used rookie, his spot was needed for veterans Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus, who were both returning from injury. But the Packers lost, meaning Heflin’s re-signing was postponed. For the next few days, Heflin had little to do but consider the possibility his career was over.
The worry was premature, as the Packers re-signed Heflin before breaking for the offseason, but the sickening feeling was enough to show Heflin he would do everything possible to avoid it happening again.
“Knowing that you're out of work and that really you don't feel wanted, this is what you poured your whole life into," he said, "that's something I never, ever want to experience again.”
That feeling has driven the Iowa alum this offseason. It’s the reason, in arguably the Packers' deepest unit, the second-year undrafted free agent has found a way to stand out through training camp and the first two preseason games.
“I have a hard time with being my worst critic. So people tell me that I played well, but I set almost too high a standard for myself all the time,” said Heflin, who added his mother and girlfriend are always trying to stop him from being so hard on himself.
“But it's a good thing. There's a reason why I got to this point from the route I took. I'm not going to change my mindset and perspective going into games.”
The danger of that drive, Heflin will be the first to admit, is the weight of self-criticism.
“I guess I'm wired a little different in that way,” he said. “All the great athletes, none of them are mentally correct. And that’s the way they motivate themselves.”
Against the 49ers, in the first preseason game, Heflin finished with four tackles, including one for loss, and graded out above an 80, the barometer considered a good game. Against the Saints, Heflin finished with one tackle and missed, by his count, around four. It led to a much lower grade.
Coach Matt LaFleur is quick to praise Heflin, saying he didn’t feel he played poorly against New Orleans, before listing his attributes.
“I love the way he ran to the football and the effort that he displayed,” LaFleur said. “Every snap ,that’s one thing that you can always count on with a guy like Jack is, he's gonna give you everything he's got.”
But good isn’t good enough when you know it can still get you cut. That’s what stays on Heflin’s mind. It’s why he sat in his locker the following Sunday and wanted to talk only about what went wrong; because if you know what went wrong, you can make it right.
“I actually feel like with the game against the Saints, I kind of took a step back, I didn't feel like I played to my standard," he said. "Walking off the field, I was not happy with my performance. Happy we won as a team. But I was playing some pretty good ball there after San Fran and those practices. But it's just small things that I was struggling with.
“Just trying to mess with my hands, not attacking my tip as much. But that's why I just really focused in practice today. And that's what I'm gonna focus on this whole next week until we play the game in Kansas City.”
Heflin jokes that his nickname is “a trashcan full of dirt.” It’s what his pre-draft scouting report read; a compliment for a defensive lineman, meaning he’s immovable. His locker mate, tight end Robert Tonyan, chimes in, “that’s an analogy, not a nickname.”
Fine, an analogy then, Heflin concedes. But it’s one he wants to emulate in every facet of his game and his place on this team. He knows what it takes to succeed and, more importantly, he knows what it’s like to be cut. It’s a business, yes, but as roster cuts loom, Heflin is determined to stay put in Green Bay.
“Everything's a learning experience," he said. "And if you look at it that way, with a growth mindset, obviously, you're gonna grow from it.
“Such a deep room, such a top-heavy talented room. Truly no expectations for guys like me, quote, unquote, the bottom of the room. So that's how I look at it. So I just kind of go out there and try to just let it fly and play free and play hard. Because, I mean, if you play hard, good things happen.”