Packers hope Janis can 'take that next step'

Pete Dougherty
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INDIANAPOLIS - It’s still very much an open question on what the Green Bay Packers have in Jeff Janis.

Green Bay Packers receiver Jeff Janis (83) celebrates his special teams play against the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field.

But based on the way the former seventh-round draft pick finished last season, you have to give him a legitimate shot at beating out Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery for the important role as the Packers' No. 3 receiver.

That will require Janis to become more polished. But he was a better player in the Packers’ last game, against Arizona in the divisional round of the playoffs, than Adams was at any time in 2015, even though Adams is the more sophisticated route runner. And Janis’ size and speed make him a better fit for the outside receiver spot that’s open than Montgomery, who could end up taking the majority of his snaps from the slot and backfield.

“(Janis) just needs to work on the little things, just the details of playing the position,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL scouting combine. “He hasn’t played a lot of just pure receiver the way we’ve asked him to play, and I think he’s doing a hell of a job. Gifted young man, and he knows what his strengths are and the things he needs to work on.”

The Packers never will say they should have played Janis earlier last season, though the Arizona playoff game was pretty definitive proof they should have. But that matters no more. What matters is where he and they go from here.

Jordy Nelson returns from knee-reconstruction surgery as the Packers’ No. 1 receiver, and Randall Cobb from the slot is the No. 2. Then there will be a free-for-all for the No. 3 with Adams, Janis and Montgomery as the leading candidates, along with Jared Abbrederis and perhaps a draft pick.

If that draft pick is a high one, which can’t be ruled out, he might become the front-runner.

As for James Jones, I don’t see why the Packers would re-sign him. He’s had a nice career but turns 32 in March and would only get in the way of the young players.

Adams on paper probably has to rate as the favorite for the No. 3 job because he has played by far the most of the group. In two NFL seasons he has 1,501 offensive snaps (763 last year and 738 as a rookie). That dwarfs Janis’ 146 (131 last season) and Montgomery’s 242 (all as a rookie last year).

But Adams’ nondescript 2015 makes you wonder. He had enough trouble winning one-on-one battles to leave open questions about whether he’s really a No. 3. Maybe the ankle injury that cost him three games early in the season was a huge factor in his under-performance (50 receptions, 9.7 yards per catch), and after a confidence-shaking ’15 he might return as a much better player in ’16. Or maybe general manager Ted Thompson missed when he picked Adams in the second round two years go. That happens.

“For a while I think (the impact of Adams’ injury) was obvious,” McCarthy said. “Whether it was physical, confidence, he wasn’t the same there. You could see it in his route running, his steps were shorter, all of that. … Guys have to learn how to play through that, and what it does to your technique and how you present to the DB when you run routes.”

Montgomery essentially lost his rookie season to a high-ankle sprain that, it turned out, included cartilage damage and prevented him from returning. He played in the first six games, got hurt and finally had surgery in December, when doctors found the cartilage issues.

“Based on what they saw once they went in there, it’s understandable (that he was unable to return),” McCarthy said. “… You appreciate when guys do that, do everything they can to get back.”

Montgomery’s skill set — mainly his running back-like build (6-feet, 216 pounds) and ability to run after the catch — best suits him as a slot receiver trying to turn shorter throws into bigger gains. Before Montgomery’s injury, the Packers also had some success with an offensive package where he and Cobb would start out in the backfield, with various motions that made it difficult for defenses to match up the way they wanted.

Montgomery can play outside receiver if needed because of his strength, but Janis offers a dimension of size (6-foot-3, 219) and speed (4.42-second 40) on the outside that no one else on the roster has. That ability to threaten defenses alone counts for something, and defenses surely will feel threatened after watching the game tape of his two Hail Mary-type catches against Arizona.

Janis doesn’t have Nelson’s ability to get in and out of cuts quickly and precisely, which is why he didn’t get on the field last season even though he should have. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers obviously didn’t trust him to be where he was supposed to be on timing throws.

But based on Janis' improvement since he was a rookie, he could very well surpass Adams this summer. McCarthy said that after last year’s bye week, quality-control coach Luke Getsy, who’s now the receivers coach, worked with Janis on tracking over-the-shoulder throws and saw noticeable improvement.

I don’t think anybody’s ready to predict that Janis is going to be a player in this league. He hasn’t done close to enough to justify that. But he might be the Packers’ most interesting player to monitor going into next season.

“You look at (Janis’) rookie year, very raw, raw player,” McCarthy said. “He made the (final) 53 on potential, not on performance. Great kid, hard working, very powerful. But there were just a lot of things, when he does them, they’re for the first time. Hopefully we’re out of that phase of his development. I look for Jeff to take that next step. He made the step in your second year that you look for.”

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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