J.J. Jansen didn’t have the smoothest path to the NFL, going from walk-on to undrafted free agent to being injured and traded.
Now, he finds himself as the leader of the Panthers’ special teams.
But Jansen understands if fans don’t know his name. He plays a position with little clout: long snapper.
For most of his childhood, Jansen only played baseball as a catcher and first baseman. It wasn’t until his sophomore year at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, Ariz., that he played football, when the long snapper job opened up on the varsity team.
Jansen’s father played the same position in high school, and Jansen was intrigued by hometown Arizona Cardinals snapper Trey Junkin, so he gave it a shot. With his father’s encouragement and a strong arm from years of baseball, the adjustment was easy.
He was so good, in fact, that he got serious looks from four schools before ultimately being a preferred walk-on at Notre Dame. And in his sophomore season against Southern California, he earned the starting job for good.
Jansen signed with the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2008, and was supposed to be the team’s long-term, long snapper. He won the starting job and was the only snapper on roster for the last five weeks of camp, but he hurt his knee covering a punt on the last play of the preseason and was placed on injured reserve.
“It was challenging,” said Jansen after wrapping up Panthers minicamp last week. “It was psychologically very tough because I had been playing football, going back seven or eight years, and this was the first time I was sitting out, and it was the first time dealing with an injury.”
The Packers informed Jansen on a Tuesday the following spring they would be releasing him at the end of the day if they didn’t work out a trade. Tuesday came and went, and Jansen was still on the roster. It was two more weeks until then-Panthers general manager Marty Hurney called, giving Jansen the news that Carolina had traded a conditional draft pick for him.
“I still remember that call like it was yesterday because it was a second chance,” said Jansen. “We had to figure out where Carolina was; we didn’t know it was in Charlotte. But I was here by the next day starting with the offseason workouts.”
Since coming to the Panthers, Jansen has found his niche. He’s quiet on the field and says he takes more pride in the success of his kickers and punters than his own job.
Much of his success, he says, can be attributed to two of his former Panthers teammates and closest friends: Retired Panthers kicking legend John Kasay and punter Jason Baker.
“I don’t think I’m still playing in the NFL if I hadn’t been put with those two guys at that time,” said Jansen. “They took skills that I had and turned me into a professional, and I always will be indebted to them.”
That close connection presented a bit of a challenge for Jansen last year, the first season both mentors were not on the team. But he made the most of it.
With them gone, Jansen became the most veteran member of the special teams in training camp. He was working with then-rookie punter Brad Nortman and first-year kicker Justin Medlock.
“It was an opportunity for me to see what I could do,” Jansen said. “I kind of stepped out of my apprenticeship. In some ways, I was a leader within our group, and I had a lot of fun because I felt their words and their actions speaking through me.”
Carolina rewarded Jansen’s consistency and skill last season with a four-year extension worth $3.6 million, giving him more job security than most snappers in the league. As a comparison, Dolphins Pro Bowler John Denney is only on a four-year $3 million deal.
Jansen, now in his fifth year with the Panthers, can call Charlotte home. He and his wife have settled in with their newborn baby boy, and his new contract should keep him in town through the 2015 season.
His strong work ethic isn’t lost on coaches either, and they laud his approach to the low-profile job.
“He comes to work every day with the right attitude,” said special teams coordinator Richard Rodgers. “He believes that his job is the most important job on the field, and he takes that attitude from the time he walks through the gates to when he leaves.
“I think that his teammates really respect the fact that he takes his job seriously.”
For their own sake, the Panthers hope fans won’t be hearing Jansen’s name during the season because that likely means he botched a snap. But the team knows just how important the little-known player from Phoenix is.
“Every time he snaps the ball,” said Rodgers.