The Green Bay Packers’ coaching staff clearly is convinced Jeff Janis isn’t ready for prime time.
I think they’re mistaken in not finding out for sure.
The Packers have more information to go on, because they see him in practice every day. Reporters are barred from team drills once the regular season starts, so all that’s available to outside observers is what Janis did in training camp and his 77 snaps so far in games.
Even so, it’s hard to see why coach Mike McCarthy hasn’t trotted out Janis for 10 or 15 snaps the last week or two. The Packers are groping for ways to stretch the field without Jordy Nelson, and the one thing we know about Janis is he’s their biggest (6-feet-3) and fastest receiver (4.42-seconds in the 40).
We also know that when Janis plays, whatever his mistakes he as often as not ends up making something happen. This preseason he averaged 14.9 yards on 10 catches and had three touchdowns. Of course, that’s against backups. But when injuries forced him into the No. 3 receiver role for 40 snaps against San Diego four weeks ago, his speed flashed on his two catches for 79 yards.
I get that teams can’t play receivers who make repeated mental mistakes in practice. We saw that last year with tight end Brandon Bostick. He was the Packers’ most athletic tight end but couldn’t get on the field because the coaching staff and Aaron Rodgers didn’t trust him. Bostick’s botched recovery of the onside kick in the NFC title game told us everything we needed to know there. They were right not to play him.
But this doesn’t seem the same. The coaches aren’t saying Janis is blowing assignments.
Also, the need is more acute this time around. While the 2014 Packers could have used Bostick’s athleticism, they still were the NFL’s leading-scoring team without him playing a meaningful role. This year they’re No. 10 in pints and No. 25 in yards with Nelson out for the season and halfback Eddie Lacy underperforming.
That’s not where a team with one of the league’s top two quarterbacks should be halfway through the schedule. And it’s no secret the Packers’ receivers have had trouble separating from coverage in recent weeks. Maybe Janis and No. 6 receiver Jared Abbrederis can make a play or two that helps. At this point they’re worth a look-see.
So why isn’t Janis getting on the field?
It starts with his background.
Janis was a high school running back who moved to receiver at Division II Saginaw Valley State. There he was a tall speedster in an unsophisticated offense. In 44 college games he caught 46 touchdown passes and averaged 17.5 yards a reception. He lined up mostly in the same spot and ran mainly go and post routes.
So he played in college against a low level of competition and came to the NFL raw. The question is whether he’s anything more than a tall, fast guy.
The Packers knew he was a project when they drafted him in the seventh round in 2014. But now he’s been with them for a year and a half. He's gone through two training camps and their offseason program. He’s not a rookie anymore.
When Nelson got hurt it Janis moved up to the No. 4 receiver and it looked like his door might open for playing time. Then when the Packers signed James Jones at the end of camp, that door closed. Aside from Janis’ 40 snaps as an injury fill-in against San Diego, he has played 37 offensive snaps total in the other six games, including only three last week at Carolina.
This week, offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett and receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said assignments weren’t the problem. They said Janis knows the plays and can function in the no-huddle offense. They said he’s catching the ball.
When pressed, each came back to the catch-all word “consistency.” I took it to mean he’s not precise enough, doesn’t always make the right route adjustments or cleanly get off press coverage at the line.
“We always push every day for him to be more consistent in his (route) depths,” Van Pelt said. “The big thing is just being on the same page as the quarterback. He needs to gain Aaron’s trust more and more every day, and that starts in practice.”
Clearly, Rodgers’ trust isn’t there. This gets to what I was questioning at the end of camp when I cautioned about signing Jones after the New York Giants cut him.
Now, to be clear, Jones has helped the Packers, and at this point it’s hard to fault them for bringing him back. From Day 1 Rodgers showed great trust in the ninth-year pro, especially on free plays, and early on Jones produced. His six touchdown catches lead the team, and he’s averaging an exceptional 20.1 yards on 24 receptions.
But at age 31, Jones has his physical limitations, and as the season has gone on they’ve surfaced. In the last four games, including three against strong defenses (St. Louis, Denver and Carolina), he has only seven receptions.
By immediately making Jones a starter in their three-receiver set – he's played 90 percent of their offensive snaps – the Packers made a trade-off. It meant smaller roles for rookie Ty Montgomery, Janis and Abbrederis. Ankle injuries to Davante Adams and Montgomery mixed up the playing rotations some, but when the top three (Randall Cobb, Adams and Jones) are healthy, the top three play.
A part of me still wonders if Rodgers would have more trust in Janis now if the Packers had forced him onto the field some early in the season.
Of course, there’s a flip side to playing Janis. He might flop. Maybe the splash plays are too infrequent to justify the mistakes. There’s a very real chance that when he plays the offense functions no better than it has, or even worse. Maybe the game’s too big for him.
But the Packers have been overly cautious about playing young players before. You could argue fourth-round pick Jake Ryan should have replaced Nate Palmer at inside linebacker earlier than last week. Same for first-rounder Damarious Randall as a starter at cornerback.
No one here’s arguing that Janis is the Packers’ missing link. But last week he and Abbrederis played three snaps each. That’s hard to square with an offense in search of a spark.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.