GREEN BAY – The shout-out initially caught Jayrone Elliott off-guard.
Sitting in a special-teams meeting recently, the Packers’ third-year linebacker’s ears perked up when coordinator Ron Zook began naming veterans whom rookies and college free agents should aspire to emulate.
It surprised Elliott to hear his own name on Zook’s list. Not that praise was unfounded. After all, Elliott’s 26 coverage tackles lead the Packers’ special teams over the past two seasons. It’s just what the comment represents – he’s a veteran now.
While Elliott is still tugging on the defensive coattails of Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews in outside linebacker meetings, young players now look up to him on special teams.
“Coach Zook brings it up and tells those guys to be in my hip pocket,” Elliott recalled. “That’s funny because I’m still in Peppers’ and Clay’s hip pocket.”
Elliott, a former undrafted free agent out of Toledo, is entering a critical third NFL season. No longer just a preseason pass-rusher – his five sacks in four exhibition games helped him earn a job in 2014 – Elliott understands more is expected of him.
He’s everything you could want in a special-teams stalwart. His unique blend of size (6-3, 255) and athleticism make him an easy fit on every unit of special teams. Yet, he craves more.
Elliott appeared to be on the verge of making a greater impact on defense early last season. He turned in arguably his best game as a pro against Seattle in Week 2, forcing a fumble and picking off quarterback Russell Wilson on only nine defensive snaps.
He followed up that performance with sacks in back-to-back weeks against Kansas City and San Francisco. Then, things took a turn for the worse after defensive lineman Mike Daniels accidently stepped on Elliott’s quadriceps in practice.
The injury shouldn’t have lingered as long as it did, but it plagued Elliott for the rest of the season. Unwilling to wear protective padding out of fear it would slow him down, Elliott aggravated the injury against Oakland on Dec. 20 and missed the following three games.
“It never really healed,” Elliott said. “Trainers said if I would’ve hydrated better and got more sleep at night, it would’ve recovered faster. That was on me. I have to do that. And also stay away from Mike Daniels.”
Once back home in Cleveland, Elliott began working with a nutritionist this offseason to improve his hydration and eating habits. It meant eating healthier and weaning off his favorite snack: Sour Patch Kids.
Speaking honestly, Elliott said he hasn’t entirely scrapped them from his diet, but he’s on the right track with training camp a little more than a month away.
“I’m not going to lie. I’m not away from them completely,” Elliott laughed. “But I’m just trying to eat healthier foods and healthier snacks with more fruit. Staying hydrated instead of having a muscle pulled. I’m kind of big on hydration. I’m surprised I don’t have a water bottle with me right now.”
Quad notwithstanding, Elliott felt that he gained a lot from his second NFL campaign. His fourth-quarter interception of Wilson, which came at a critical time in an eventual 27-17 win, helped reinforce the importance of grasping the entire defense and not just his own assignment.
The wider your scope, the more you’re able to make plays. Although opportunities to affect a game occasionally pop-up, it’s equally important to make things happen organically.
Elliott improved his numbers across the board (24 tackles and three sacks in 14 regular-season games), but can’t help wondering what might have been when reflecting back on the season.
“It was frustrating for me personally,” Elliott said. “I felt like I could have made plays in different opportunities, but at the same time, I had a nagging injury and it was preventing me from playing in some games and holding me back.
“It’s on me taking care of my body. I just feel like I have to do a better job of being more prepared instead of going out there chasing plays.”
Off the field, Elliott is comfortable dealing with people and being active in the community. He’s currently taking part in the Packers’ 11th annual Tailgate Tour across the state.
In the locker room, he’s working on being more vocal and the strides are showing. Once too nervous to approach Peppers, he has no qualms about asking the nine-time Pro Bowler for tips on how to potty-train his son, Braylon.
Elliott has taken note of how a Pro Bowl receiver like Randall Cobb always carries his iPad around the team hotel during road trips, constantly studying his playbook and film rather than going out with teammates or joking around.
Now, Elliott wants to “lock in,” too. Along with his work on special teams, he wants to gain the trust of the defensive coaches and players in hopes of an expanded role.
As Year 3 approaches, only one thing scares Elliott.
“Not holding up my end of the stick. Letting my teammates down,” Elliott said. “I don’t want to be that guy out there. I want to be accountable at all times when I step on the field. Show these guys I could be a guy, let the older guys know they can trust me.”