GREEN BAY – Last year at this time, Packers receiver Juwann Winfree was turning heads.
Developing into a popular, reliable target for quarterback Jordan Love during OTAs and minicamp, Winfree carried a strong spring into a solid start to training camp before a shoulder injury sidelined him for all three preseason games.
The extended absence cost him a potential spot on the 53-man roster at cutdown time, and he spent 2021 shuffling between the practice squad and active roster, eventually seeing action in seven games.
In that context, it makes perfect sense for Winfree to quickly answer the following when asked the keys to making progress in 2022 in a crowded, competitive Green Bay receivers room:
"Consistency and availability," Winfree said after Tuesday's OTA workout. "I feel like I was ready last year. I was ready to take that next step, and I got hurt in camp."
All that said, there's no denying he still made some strides despite the health setback.
Originally a sixth-round draft pick by Denver in 2019 who played in three games as a rookie, Winfree was signed to the Packers' practice squad on Oct. 1, 2020, and was elevated on gameday twice.
He had no statistics to show for his efforts, though, until getting pressed into duty in Week 8 last season at Arizona, when the Packers' receiving corps was decimated by injury and COVID.
In Green Bay's big road win, Winfree contributed four receptions for 30 yards. Getting additional action late in the season, he caught four more passes for 28 yards in the final two regular-season games.
But the performances were uneven, hence the word "consistency" rolling so rapidly off his tongue. Against the Cardinals, he dropped a quick swing pass from Aaron Rodgers, and later he fumbled after a short catch with the ball fortunately going out of bounds. At Detroit in Week 18, he lost a fumble after a short reception on the Packers' opening drive of the second half, and the Lions scored a TD on the next play.
Winfree has long since shaken off the mishaps, and he doesn't believe they occurred because the lights were too bright, so to speak. No matter how up and down, the game experience was "everything" for him as he plows ahead toward a heated competition at his position this summer.
In the aftermath of trading Davante Adams and losing Marquez Valdes-Scantling in free agency, the Packers drafted three receivers in April – North Dakota State's Christian Watson in the second round, Nevada's Romeo Doubs in the fourth, and Nebraska's Samori Toure in the seventh – added undrafted rookie Danny Davis from Wisconsin, and signed veteran Sammy Watkins.
With Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard leading the group, Green Bay also brings back 2021 third-round pick Amari Rodgers, plus Malik Taylor and Winfree.
The latter three youngsters have all been with the Packers at least a year, and receivers coach/passing game coordinator Jason Vrable says they "look night and day" playing at "a totally different speed" this spring during offseason workouts.
Winfree chalks that up to a more comprehensive knowledge of the playbook and a more engrained understanding of the standards and expectations. At 6-1 and 210 pounds, Winfree has the size, catch radius and other physical traits that make him an intriguing prospect, and this is the year he must put it all together.
"For the most part the coaches want to see me master the system, see me being as confident as I can and be consistent throughout the whole year," he said. "That's really it for me.
"They believe in me, they know I can ball. They see what attributes I bring to the table. For me it's just making that next step of showing I can play every position and I can be counted on every single time."
Next week's minicamp, with Aaron Rodgers back at the controls, could provide another front-line opportunity for Winfree depending on how the coaches set the depth chart (and whether or not Lazard signs his tender and participates).
Looking ahead, the three preseason games in August he missed last year are absolute musts this time around with so many young receivers fighting for snaps. The Packers haven't made this big a draft investment at receiver since 2014, the year they selected Adams in the second round, then Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis on the final day. So the challenge for unproven holdovers to make the team is significant.
But Winfree's focus is on himself, not on others. He knows where he stood last year before his progress got thrown off track.
"My main goal is to stay healthy and be consistent. That's it," he said. "I'm not worried about the stats, I'm not worried about where I fit in on this team. I just want to be healthy and be consistent, because if I'm that, the chips are going to lay where they're supposed to and things are going to happen for the better. That's really where my head's at.
"I'm eager. I'm eager and I'm confident. I'm excited for the opportunity that arises. I think I'm in a position to fully take advantage of my future. I've been staying down, I've been grinding and just waiting my time. I've paid my dues here two years, and I understand what it takes."