GREEN BAY – The roads to real NFL game action don't get much longer than the one traveled by Packers receiver Jake Kumerow, but he never really doubted he'd reach the destination.
From spending most of his first three pro seasons on the practice squads of the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots, Kumerow sensed he belonged. Sure, he had a lot of progress to make coming from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater as an undrafted prospect in 2015, but his confidence was on display in his first training camp in Green Bay last summer.
That confidence was rooted in all the scout-team work he did in the AFC for three years, lining up across from starting NFL defensive backs and feeling like he held his own. His roster spot and subsequent pro debut with the Packers were delayed by a preseason shoulder injury, but ultimately catching eight passes for 103 yards and a touchdown over the final month of 2018 wasn't some out-of-nowhere contribution to Kumerow.
It was simply the opportunity he'd been waiting for, even if he had to wait much longer than the average NFL hopeful.
"I always thought I could be out there playing on Sunday," Kumerow said before embarking on his offseason. "The way the practice goes each day, I thought I always had a shot at doing it. Maybe I surprised myself a little bit, but I was excited to be out there making plays."
That's not to say the transition came easily, though. Three years running routes on scout teams (he spent the final week of the 2016 season on Cincinnati's 53-man roster, but was a Week 17 game-day inactive) isn't the same as being in the right place at the right time for Aaron Rodgers.
Impressively, Kumerow didn't take long to get on the same page with Rodgers in training camp, but there was still an adjustment for his regular-season debut in early December after spending three months on injured reserve.
"When you're out there with Aaron and he's making checks and doing things really fast, those things are split-second decisions and you have to be ready to go," Kumerow said. "In practice you have a little more time to sit back and look at it, but in the game, it's fast. So I thought I improved my fast decision-making."
So much so that in Week 16 when the Jets botched a third-down coverage in the second quarter, he turned his head quickly once he saw the open space. It became a relatively easy pitch-and-catch for a 49-yard touchdown, without a doubt the highlight of Kumerow's NFL career to date.
He finished the Jets game with three catches for 68 yards and added three more receptions in the finale vs. Detroit. That's a lot of action in two weeks after taking almost four years to find the field, but Kumerow hopes his long-awaited beginning is just that, a beginning.
"Absolutely. Best year yet, by a longshot, for me," he said. "It stinks we didn't end up the season on a win or make it to the playoffs, but I got some experience and helped the team win a few games, so I'm looking forward to it next year."
Where and how he fits in 2019 is to be determined, but that goes for pretty much all of Green Bay's receivers except Pro Bowler Davante Adams as the Packers transition to new Head Coach Matt LaFleur, new receivers coach Alvis Whitted, and a new offense.
Veteran Randall Cobb is a pending free agent, while 2018 draft picks Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and J'Mon Moore had varying degrees of success as rookies, though the most important thing that applies to all of them is they're no longer rookies.
Trevor Davis also is expected back after a year mostly lost to injury, and late-season additions Allen Lazard and Teo Redding will also look to boost their profiles. Then there's free agency and another draft, which the Packers enter with 10 picks.
If Kumerow were to choose one thing to go differently for him in 2019, it would be his health. He was in line for a much bigger role before a preseason touchdown tumble into the end zone damaged his shoulder.
But he's decided there's no point in regretting anything, just pushing forward, one goal at a time.
"Stay healthy," he said of his top priority. "You look around at every team, every locker room, and sometimes it's survival of the fittest out there."
Kumerow has proven he can survive pretty well.