GREEN BAY — That Matt LaFleur tempered his enthusiasm for his No. 2 quarterback DeShone Kizer’s performance in the Green Bay Packers’ preseason opener last week was somewhat telling.
Even though Kizer put up strong numbers — he was 8 of 13 for 102 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass to Darrius Shepherd, for a sparkling 111.7 passer rating — LaFleur didn’t exactly go overboard in his praise immediately after the game.
“It’s consistency on a daily basis, and not just in the game, but in practice,” said the Packers first-year coach, whose coaching path traces through the quarterback position, including coaching Kizer at Notre Dame in 2014. “I thought he did a nice job (against Houston), but it’s got to be each and every day.”
No one knows better that Kizer needs to find consistency more than Kizer himself. As he enters his third NFL season, his circumstances so far have sorely lacked consistency — and so has his play.
Entering the league as a second-round pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2017, Kizer ended up starting 15 games for the Browns, who infamously went 0-16 that season under Hue Jackson The Browns then shipped him to Green Bay last offseason in exchange for the Packers’ own disappointing high pick — 2015 first-rounder Demarious Randall — and Kizer had to adjust to a new head coach (Mike McCarthy) and a new offensive system.
McCarthy was fired with four games left in last season, meaning Kizer once again has a new coach and a new system.
Kizer struggled playing in relief of Aaron Rodgers twice last year: In the season opener, when Rodgers suffered a knee injury but returned in the second half to rally the team to victory, and in the season finale, when Rodgers went out with a first-quarter concussion. In those two appearances, Kizer completed just 20 of 42 passes (47.6 percent) for 187 yards with one interception, one lost fumble and a passer rating of 40.5.
During his year in Cleveland, his numbers were similarly low, and of the 40 NFL quarterbacks with at least 300 passing attempts over the past two seasons, Kizer ranks last in passer rating (58.9), last in touchdown percentage (2.1), last in interception percentage (4.63), second-to-last in completion percentage (53.1) and 38th in yards per attempt (5.95).
“The great quarterbacks are the ones that are consistent every game, every play,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “He’s been in a couple systems now, and I think him just continuing to understand the system is the first battle he has to fight. Just being able to get in there and call the play, and then understand what he has to do from a protection standpoint to then the pass world. That will allow him to just relax and play calm.
“That’s the thing. When you see him out there when he’s relaxed, playing tall and just executing the play, it’s good. Whenever there’s some indecision at times, sometimes he gets a little crazy. I think it’s just about trying to limit that and get him more comfortable within the system.”
Kizer will have another valuable opportunity to show that consistency and comfort in LaFleur’s system tonight against the Baltimore Ravens in the Packers’ second exhibition game. Although LaFleur said he plans to play Rodgers and the starters “a quarter or so” in this game, Kizer should still have some opportunities before third QB Tim Boyle and fourth QB Manny Wilkins get to play.
“This is the NFL. You’re always going to be competing with someone and nothing’s ever given in this league,” Kizer said. “I think I’m a prime example of that. It’s about whatever reps you’re given — whether it’s with the 1s, the 2s, the 3s or a mental rep on the sideline — it’s about getting better and proving yourself. Every time you go out there you want to prove exactly who you are.
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“This league is about what you put on tape. Every rep you get, it’s making sure it’s the best one that really shows exactly who you are. This was an opportunity for me to show what I’ve gained in this offseason in terms of my balance and being able to throw with the ball some consistency and accuracy. I was able to show that a couple times (against the Texans). Now, it’s about building on that and showing the consistency that’s needed to be a starter in this league again.”
To that end, Kizer said he lost roughly 10 pounds this offseason (“I think I’m in the best shape of my life”) and worked out with renowned quarterback guru Tom House to improve his mechanics (“I’m pretty confident in my throwing motion now”) and balance. Now he has to put those personal improvements on film.
Kizer acknowledged that he missed some throws he should have made against the Texans — even the touchdown to Shepherd was too high — but he noted that none of his drives ended in a turnover. Having thrown 24 interceptions in two years, including an NFL-high 22 in 2017, Kizer’s mentality has been that drives need to end with “kicks, not picks.” That means, instead of interceptions, that any kick — a field goal attempt, a point after touchdown, and even a punt — is better than a turnover.
“This game is about the ball. If there’s any guy in this league who understands that, it’s me from the experiences that I’ve had in the past,” Kizer said. “Winning is the ultimate goal but in order to win, the biggest emphasis in my game and what I’ve done in the last two years is making sure the ball is out of harm’s way and in the right playmakers’ hands to get into scoring range.”
Asked what he thought of Kizer’s philosophy, general manager Brian Gutekunst – the man who made the trade to bring Kizer to Green Bay – replied, “Before you win the game, you can’t lose it, right? I think that’s the biggest thing – can you manage the game and keep your chances alive? I think both Tim and DeShone, did a nice job in the game. Again, it’s about stacking successes, right? That was a good first start and kind of see what they do.
“(Kizer) is really working on his feet and how that ties into the accuracy part of it. I think you’ve seen through camp, he’s done a lot of what Matt wants to do. … There’s always room for these guys to improve and we have a long way to go, both Tim and DeShone. But I do like the way they’re progressing in Matt’s offense.”
That said, there’s no guarantee that any of the quarterbacks are the best option behind Rodgers. In 2013, the Packers had Graham Harrell, B.J. Coleman and Vince Young in camp and wound up releasing them all in favor of picking up Seneca Wallace and ex-University of Wisconsin starter Scott Tolzien after final cuts.
That was the year Rodgers broke his left collarbone and only the serendipitous return of former Rodgers backup Matt Flynn, who came back and led the Packers to a 2-2-1 record in the five games he played, saved the season from disaster.
Kizer must show that he, like Flynn did, can be trusted if Rodgers goes down. At this point, he has not done so.
“The next step for me is making sure I can consistently be a guy that they know exactly what they’re going to get when I step out on the field,” Kizer said. “I’ve had quite a few outings in a short career so far, and within that we’ve seen a couple of different guys. We’ve seen a guy who’s run a bunch, we’ve seen a guy who’s turned the ball over a bunch, we’ve seen a guy who throws a bunch of a check downs and has a high completion percentage in certain games.
“It’s about making sure that I can consistently show exactly what I want to show, and that’s a guy who’s going to keep the ball out of harm’s way, keep the chains moving forward and end each drive with a kick.”
1. OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS
While Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur have conferred and decided that the starters will play, in LaFleur’s words, “a quarter or so,” that still leaves ample opportunity for the guys fighting for roster spots to show what they can do against the Ravens.
Gutekunst faces some challenging decisions at a variety of positions in the coming weeks, including at wide receiver, where barring injury, Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdes-Scantling are clearly going to be on the roster and former UW-Whitewater star Jake Kumerow (above) is likely to be, too. After that, it’s anyone’s guess, with receiver/returner Trevor Davis sidelined with a stinger injury, J’Mon Moore having continued his inconsistent play, Equanimeous St. Brown having a quiet camp, Allen Lazard making a legit challenge for a roster spot and Darrius Shepherd drawing deserved attention.
Beyond receiver, there’s a host of young cornerbacks in the mix for roster spots, uncertainty behind the starters on the offensive line, and a jumble of youngsters battling at inside linebacker in the wake of starter Oren Burks’ chest injury in the preseason opener last week against Houston. They’ll have two more chances after this: The team’s Aug. 22 field trip to Canada to face the Oakland Raiders in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and the preseason finale against Kansas City on Aug. 29 will be their final opportunity before the Aug. 31 final roster reduction from 90 to 53.
“I think it’s wide-open, quite frankly. I know from my end of it, there really haven’t been any decisions made at all,” Gutekunst said this week. “I think we’re excited about the competition at a lot of spots, but I’ve been around long enough to know even in that fourth preseason game guys earn spots.
“I don’t think that’s good business on our part, to close the doors this early. There’s a lot of football to be played. Part of that also is being able to show up each and every day, be consistent, stay healthy and be out on that field. I think there’s a lot to prove for our guys before we get to that point where we’re ready to make those calls.”
2. TACKLING TROUBLES
Packers inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti scoffed at the notion, even though he’s an old-school coach who remembers when tackling was a colossal part of any NFL training camp.
“The expectation is the same, but the process is obviously different than it was awhile back,” Olivadotti replied last week when asked if missed tackles are to be expected in the preseason when scarcely any team — certainly not the safety-conscious, injury-unlucky Packers — tackles in practice anymore. “The progression of (working on it) probably has changed, but the expectations on our end haven’t changed.”
If that’s the case, then the Packers will be expecting a major improvement in that area against the Ravens after, by LaFleur’s count, they missed a whopping 24 tackles on defense and special teams against the Texans.
“In today’s NFL, there’s very few teams that are going to bring guys to the ground and have a bunch of tackling practices, full contact,” LaFleur confessed this week. “You have to get it in the drill work, and we stress it and drill it, and you have to drill it every day.
“The expectation is you always bring the guys to the ground. The standard is never going to change and it’s never an excuse. But I do think you get some younger guys in there that maybe aren’t quite accustomed to this level of play yet. It might take a minute for them to figure it out. But the standard is the standard.”
Added Gutekunst: Obviously in our first game, we didn’t particularly tackle very well on defense. So let’s see how we get to Game 2 to Game 3 to Game 4, and with individuals, specifically. Again, it’s the first game and first time going to the ground. But if those issues stay the same in Game 2, 3 and 4, then maybe it’s more of a problem.”
3. 'SHEP' STANDS OUT
Arguably the most impressive play in the Packers’ 28-26 victory over the Texans last week came from Darrius Shepherd (above), who reeled in a 14-yard touchdown pass from No. 2 quarterback DeShone Kizer with an acrobatic, body-contorting catch after Kizer’s throw sailed high. He not only made the grab, but he absorbed a hard hit by Houston cornerback Johnson Bademosi in the head and left shoulder and held on.
In preseason, that’s what it’s all about: Making plays that earn you more opportunities to make more plays. And that’s precisely what the undersized 5-foot-11, 186-pound Shepherd, an undrafted rookie from North Dakota State, has done.
“He’s done a nice job,” Gutekunst said. “He had a pretty productive year at a pretty good program — but a smaller program — (in NDSU). Obviously, he’s not the biggest player out there. His measurements aren’t typically what you’re looking for, didn’t run particularly fast at his pro day. But he’s a football player. He has that instinctual ability to find spots, get open and catch the ball.
“He’s really been a nice surprise for us so far. Again, a long way to go but he’s earned more opportunities.”
Shepherd knows all about earning his keep. While the Packers signed a host of undrafted rookies right after the draft, Shepherd had to come to their post-draft rookie minicamp as a tryout player and earn a spot on the 90-man roster with a strong showing during those two practices. Had he not gotten the scouting staff’s attention, who knows where he’d be.
“He certainly was one we were going to keep an eye on,” explained Gutekunst, whose scouts take a deep dive into the college film of every tryout player they invite before they arrive for the rookie camp — just to have an idea of which tryout guys have the best shot at earning the right to stay. “He had some productivity at North Dakota State. He’s versatile enough to be a receiver and play a slot receiver Matt wants to play with a little, but he was a pretty solid punt returner, too. He’s one of those more-you-can-do guys. They have a little more of advantage when it comes to that.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.