From 90-to-1: The 2016 Green Bay Packers (Part 4)

Part 4, which leads off with promising Jayrone Elliott, contains a heavy dose of outside linebackers, tight ends and wide receivers.

Part 4 of Packer Report’s annual roster countdown continues with No. 41, outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott, and includes Datone Jones, Jared Abbrederis and Trevor Davis.

Our rankings aren’t solely based on talent, as we also take into account salary and the state of the depth chart in trying to determine the importance of each player on the roster. More than anything in this incredibly unscientific process, perhaps you’ll learn a little something about each member of the roster.

No. 41: Outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott

Just a couple years ago, Elliott was just some anonymous undrafted free agent fighting his butt off to get noticed and, hopefully, stick around in some form or fashion. Now, Elliott is one of the guys the coaching staff points to in the meeting rooms as a do-it-this-way role model for the next wave of young guys.

“(Special teams coordinator Ron) Zook brings it up and tells those guys to be in my hip pocket,” Elliott said. “That’s funny, because I’m still in (Julius) Peppers’ and Clay (Matthews’) hip pocket.”

Elliott has emerged as a standout on the Packers’ improving special teams, with 15 tackles as a rookie and 11 last season. Because of depth, he hasn’t seen a lot of action on defense, but he’s contributed when given opportunities. Recall his three-game stretch early last season. In the fourth quarter vs. Seattle, he made a one-handed interception on one possession and forced a fumble on the next to clinch a key victory. Then, he recorded sacks in back-to-back games against Kansas City and San Francisco. However, he sustained an injured quad at practice the next week and wasn’t the same player for the rest of the year. The injury lingered deep into the season, with Elliott missing the final two regular-season games and the playoff contest at Washington.

“It was frustrating for me personally,” Elliott said.

This will be a big camp for Elliott. Clay Matthews is back at outside linebacker and Kyler Fackrell was added to the mix as a third-round pick. Will this be the season Elliott becomes a regular contributor on defense? Or will this cement his fate as merely a special-teams standout?

No. 42: Long snapper Rick Lovato

In 2008, J.J. Jansen was set to be the Packers’ long snapper until he was injured late in the preseason. Brett Goode was found working construction in his native Arkansas. The Packers never turned back, with Goode performing practically flawlessly for a total of 137 games (including playoffs) until sustaining a torn ACL at Oakland in December. Lovato was found at the family sandwich shop in New Jersey and, thrown into a playoff pressure cooker, performed flawlessly in the final two regular-season games and both postseason tilts. He enters camp as the team’s lone long snapper but he’ll have to win the job, with Goode or some other long snapper just a phone call away.

“As you remember, things were going awful fast for him,” Zook said during the minicamp. “He understands the whole system. It’s just repetition, repetition, repetition. Like we did today, we were working some rushes that are difficult and things that force him to go one direction and then come back and change the call — he’s got to change what direction he goes. The one thing that you see with the young centers coming out is in college everybody’s going to the rugby punt now so no one blocks. They snap and run out of there. It really is a thing that you have to work and work and work because the protection is so key. Not only is it putting the ball back there on the money but he’s got to be able to block. We ask him to block and it’s something he doesn’t have as much experience because, in college, they snap it and run.”

No. 43: Outside linebacker Datone Jones

Jones, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, should have been a full-time defensive lineman by now – sturdy enough to play end in the base 3-4 defense and athletic enough to bring the heat as an interior pass rusher on passing downs. Jones, however, never was good enough to play end in the 3-4 – too bad, because the Packers certainly could use him in that role now. Instead, he’ll be playing a Peppers-style role as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 while remaining an interior rusher on third down.

“We made the switch last year during the season in trying to get him more repetitions outside. We liked the results,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We still think Datone can go inside and rush inside, but we’re working him primarily outside. He gives you a big, physical presence out there, which we think is good on the run and he did some good things rushing the passer.”

The switch meant a lot more playing time for Jones, with his snap count going from about 20 per game to 30 per game. It paid off, with Jones going from 10 tackles, one sack and one pass defensed in the first half of the season to 15 tackles, two sacks and two passes defensed in the second half of the season.

“You look at him, man, that guy is a natural outside (linebacker),” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “He’s supposed to be on the end (of the line of scrimmage). Tall, he’s long, he’s strong, he’s tough and he’s just a natural edge player. So, to see him in his natural habitat, so to speak, is great. You can tell he definitely feels more comfortable. He’s playing more physical and I absolutely look forward to getting him out there. When we get into that three-man front and Datone is at outside linebacker, it’s almost like we’re in a 4-3. So, it’s great, I love it.”

With Matthews’ return to outside linebacker, the position is incredibly deep. Matthews and Julius Peppers will start, with Nick Perry expected to be the next man up. Because of the depth, it will be interesting to see how many snaps are given to Jones.

No. 44: Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis

Injuries felled Abbrederis in each of his first two training camps. If he stays healthy, Abbrederis could be in the mix as the team’s No. 3 receiver. Or he could be released. That’s the state of the Packers’ deep receiver corps.

“I think Jared’s had his best offseason,” coach Mike McCarthy said during the June minicamp. “I think his route running is exemplary for a young guy. His ability to recognize coverages, and his time clock, his breaking points, his ability to drop his weight. Just all the specifics and details and techniques of route running, I think he's exceptional. He just needs to continue to work on getting stronger and so forth. He plays the position technically and fundamentally at a very high level.”

Despite the injuries, Abbrederis has a strong chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. When the Packers needed him, Abbrederis delivered four catches for 57 yards in the failed comeback at home vs. Detroit and four catches for 55 yards in the playoff loss at Arizona.

“I thought it was a good offseason,” Abbrederis said. “I just understanding the playbook – being here for two seasons, now you kind of come to grasp with all that – and then really just trying to learn more than just what you’re doing at your position but why. I think asking why things happen, why you’re doing this so you can understand the playbook better, helps you to run better routes and be in better position. Obviously, there’s things to improve on still. I’ve got a good couple of weeks here off and then come back for training camp. That’s when it’s all important. Right now, it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. It all matters during camp.”

No. 45: Safety Chris Banjo

Banjo was released at the end of training camp in 2014 and, as he labored on the practice squad, Green Bay’s special teams were exposed on a near-weekly basis. It was a different story on both fronts in 2015. Banjo made the roster and Green Bay’s special teams made dramatic improvements. Banjo piled up 21 tackles on special teams – the most by a Packer since Desmond Bishop recorded 22 in 2009 – and was voted a playoff captain by his peers. He also played well on defense, helping to fill the void when Morgan Burnett missed five of the first six games.

While he’s short at a shade less than 5-foot-10, he’s fast, powerful, aggressive, intelligent and tenacious. For years, Jarrett Bush was the face of the special teams. That honor now falls on Banjo.

No. 46: Receiver Trevor Davis

Speed is the first thing that stands out about Davis, the team’s fifth-round draft pick.

“We can’t coach 4.3 – 4.3’s 4.3 and 4.3’s fast,” Zook said.

Actually, Davis was timed in 4.42 at the Scouting Combine. Whatever. Fast is, indeed, fast. But Davis is more than speed, and that’s what makes him an intriguing prospect. His 9.6 yards after the catch per catch led the entire receiver class and his drop rate of 1.85 percent ranked fourth among receivers with at least 30 receptions. Davis was one of the more impressive performers during the offseason practices.

“I’ve been very pleased with what we’ve seen in the shorts,” Zook said. “There’s no reason for me to believe he’s not going to be a guy who’s not going to contribute more than just as a returner.”

For that to happen, Davis is going to have to show he can beat physical press coverage and take a hit. Offseason practices, after all, are closer to two-hand touch than real football.

“I was talking with a friend yesterday about the difference, there’s a natural progression from no pads to pads, to preseason playing with the No. 2s and 3s, to actually playing in a game,” Aaron Rodgers said. “So, you have a long way to go as a young player. You have to be comfortable in these settings, you have to be comfortable in a training-camp setting, you have to be productive and comfortable in the preseason [while] playing with a lot of backup players, and then there’s another jump. So, we’ve got to get these guys up to speed quickly.”

No. 47: Tight ends Kennard Backman, Mitchell Henry, Justin Perillo and Casey Pierce

While Richard Rodgers and Jared Cook will battle for the top two spots at tight end, this quartet will vie for the final spot or two at the position.

Backman, a sixth-round pick last year, spent the entire season on the roster but it was Perillo who made the bigger impact. After opening the season on the practice squad, Perillo caught 11 passes for 102 yards and one touchdown in nine games. Some guys just know how to play the game and use their assets to their fullest. Perillo is one of those guys, and he’ll enter this battle as the favorite.

Backman had a poor training camp but stuck around based on potential. He played only 11 snaps on offense and didn’t play at all in the playoffs after being burned on a fake punt in the Week 17 showdown to Minnesota. He’s got the athleticism to be an impact player. He’ll need to show that potential can become production during the preseason. The Packers kept Backman instead of Henry, who labored through camp with a broken hand. He spent five games on Denver’s roster before he was released and joined the Packers’ practice squad.

The newcomer in this battle is Pierce. Pierce, who went undrafted last year, spent his entire rookie season on Detroit’s practice squad. The Lions cut him on May 3.

“Total blind-side,” Pierce said. “Hopefully, it was for the best and I’m glad I’m in Green Bay.”

The Packers, still intrigued by a player who caught 60 passes as a senior at Kent State, invited Pierce to compete at their rookie camp. Pierce, who had taken a predraft visit to Green Bay, quickly agreed.

“My agent told me a couple teams called but I didn’t really go into it,” Pierce said. “As soon as I was available, I talked to Green Bay and they wanted me to come to rookie camp to get a look at me. I did pretty well – well enough that they liked me. They liked me before the draft last year, as well, so I was confident in coming here because there was a little familiarity.”

Aaron Rodgers likes the potential of this group of players. That was during the shorts-and-helmets practices of May and June. The winner will be determined during the hard-hitting days of July and August.

“I can’t wait,” Pierce said “This is like basketball on grass. You’re able to show your athleticism, but when the pads come on, that’s when you truly will be graded and you’ll be able to show what you have.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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