Vital on special teams but forgotten on offense, Jeff Janis must contemplate free-agent options
GREEN BAY — All season long, Jeff Janis bit his tongue and recited in his mind the same mantra.
Whatever I can do to help the team, he told himself.
And so, even as he continued to be a vital, core player on the Green Bay Packers’ special-teams units but persona non grata on offense, the fourth-year wide receiver never bellyached or complained as others passed him on the depth chart.
But while he simply dedicated himself to being the best punt gunner he could be, his buddies back home in Michigan weren’t as quiet.
“They’re a little more opinionated than I am,” Janis said with a smile.
Now, as the NFL’s free-agent negotiating window opens on Monday, the Packers must determine just how much value Janis has to them.
For while he helped punter Justin Vogel set a franchise record for net punting average (41.6 yards) on 71 punts, Janis played a paltry 50 offensive snaps. Janis wound up catching only two passes all season — a 12-yarder from backup Brett Hundley against Minnesota on Dec. 23, and another reception for no gain from Hundley in the New Year’s Eve season finale at Detroit.
Two years after coming up huge for a decimated receiving corps in the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoffs — when Janis caught seven passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns against the Arizona Cardinals, including a game-tying Hail Mary from Rodgers before the Packers lost in overtime — Janis ended the 2017 season no better than seventh in the Packers’ receiving rotation behind Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis and former college basketball player Michael Clark, an undrafted rookie free agent who was promoted from the practice squad late in the year and finished with more receptions (four) than Janis.
“Whatever they asked me to do — that’s pretty much how I approached it,” Janis said at season’s end. “Everybody wants to play on offense. But if they’re not asking me to do that, I can’t control that. I just do what they tell me.”
The Packers seemingly value Janis’ contributions on special teams. While he started the season as the kickoff returner before being replaced by Davis, he was on the field for every one of Vogel’s punts and special teams coordinator Ron Zook attributed much of Vogel’s statistical success to the Janis-led coverage group when asked about it late in the season.
“He’s done a good job, don’t get me wrong. But so have the guys around him in terms of our gunners,” Zook replied when asked about Vogel’s success before the regular-season finale. “I mean, that is so critical with us being able to get down there and hold the returns to a minimum. We’ve played some pretty good returners this year.”
The Packers finished sixth in the NFL in punt return average allowed (just 5.7 yards per return) and the longest return by an opponent was just 28 yards. Opponents fair caught 24 of Vogel’s 71 punts and returned only 29 of them – another indicator of how effective the coverage crew was.
That said, the 6-foot-3, 219-pound Janis certainly believes he can be a greater contributor on offense — if he leaves for a team with less depth at receiver and perhaps a less-demanding quarterback. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has long required precise route-running and top-notch understanding of the offensive scheme, and because he came from Division II Saginaw Valley State, Janis was playing catch-up in those areas after the Packers picked him in the seventh round (No. 236 overall) of the 2014 NFL draft.
But even as he struggled to gain Rodgers’ confidence, Janis showed a knack for playmaking, from his 33- and 34-yard touchdown catches his rookie preseason, to catching 10 passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns during the 2015 preseason, to his seemingly breakout game against the Cardinals in the 2015 postseason, to another strong preseason showing last summer (five catches, 92 yards, one touchdown). In the process, he became a fan favorite.
Now, though, he faces an uncertain future and must weigh the comfort he and wife Alyssa feel in Green Bay against greater opportunity elsewhere.
“We’ll see what happens,” said Janis, who’ll turn 27 in June. “I’ll be happy regardless — as long as I have a job. It’s tough to get a job in the NFL, period. So I’ll be happy to stay here, but if not, we’ll see what happens.
“(Playing on offense) is probably going to be a factor in deciding what happens (in free agency). I have to see what the offers are and see what happens after that. I think I’ve shown what can do on special teams, and I think the opportunities I’ve gotten on offense (over the years), I’ve also shown what I can do. It’s not like the times I’ve been in on offense I haven’t done anything. I’ve caught passes, I’ve scored touchdowns. So I think I’ve proven I can play on offense as well.”